All Commentary
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Dim Bulbs

“Hell, there are no rules here—we’re trying to accomplish something.”
—Thomas A. Edison

Edison’s words may have been true in the 1800s. Today, however, we have plenty of rules, thanks to the U.S. Congress. Some are so bizarre that you have to question the judgment of those who come up with them. One rule in particular is probably causing Edison to spin in his grave. His most famous invention, the incandescent light bulb, a mainstay in every American household for over a hundred years, has been banned by an act of Congress and will be replaced with the government-approved compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulb.

U.S. Rep. Jane Harman announced in a 2007 news release that her provision “bans Thomas Edison’s favorite oldie, the 100-Watt incandescent, by 2012, and will phase out inefficient light bulbs by 2014. By 2020, it requires that all light bulbs be 300 percent more efficient than today’s incandescents.”

Unfortunately, the federal government’s ban on products that happen to work just fine is nothing new. In writing about government-mandated products, I have noticed remarkable similarities in each case. They proceed through four phases and the light-bulb mandate is no exception.

Phase 1: Bureaucrats, “consumer advocates,” and environmentalists trumpet how wonderful the new product is. The extensive hoopla surrounding it can be boiled down to just two claims: big savings for the consumer and benefits to the environment.

The Department of Energy (DOE) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) began to promote CFLs in 1999 with their “Change a Light, Change the World” program. The DOE’s and EPA’s promotional (lobbying?) efforts were directed at members of Congress and governors, plus state and local officials, to encourage their constituents to participate. In 2006 then-Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman said: “Here’s a simple step we can take to preserve energy resources, save money and help the environment.” This is the typical approach that the government uses to influence the marketplace. The government never states that its chosen prod-uct is better.

The “big savings” never refers to the retail price. This is because the government-endorsed products are always more expensive than the consumer-endorsed alternatives. A 75-watt incandescent bulb at my local Kroger store costs 22 cents. The 20-watt CFL (advertized as equivalent to the 75-watt bulb) costs $5.49–25 times more expensive. A three-way incandescent bulb (50-100-150 watts) costs $1.25. A three-way CFL (12-23-32 watts) costs $13.12. That’s ten-and-a-half times more expensive. So when the government, environmentalists, and consumer advocates talk about big savings, they are obviously not talking about the upfront cost. They mean the operating cost over the life of the product. CFLs are advertised to last up to ten times longer than the incandescent bulb and use 75 percent less energy.

In the not-too-distant past, patriotism was exploited by the government to elicit a desired response from its citizens. Today, it is environmentalism. This has become our de facto state religion. When the government says that we need to do something because it is good for the environment, we are expected to take it on faith. We are not to question the government’s motives or logic for taking away our freedom of choice, but are expected to feel good about forgoing our selfish consumer desires because there is no higher calling in this country than saving the environment.

Rejected by Consumers

Phase 2: Consumers weigh the advantages and disadvantages of this wonderful product and decide that it is not really that wonderful after all.

CFLs have been on the market for some time, but so far consumers have not been impressed. Besides being expensive and strange looking, the light quality doesn’t seem to please people. They are not as good for reading as incandescent bulbs are, for example. Many also complain that the bulbs flicker and buzz. Dimming the intensity of CFLs also poses a problem. It would appear that consumers have a very clear choice: They can pay more for the new inferior government bulb or pay far less for a superior existing product. This might help to explain why CFLs made up only 5 percent of the light-bulb market last year, according to H. Sterling Burnett of the National Center for Policy Analysis.

I have been trying one of these bulbs above the sink in our kitchen. When I get up in the morning to make coffee, I flip the switch—but the light doesn’t really turn on. It starts off with a faint glow that gradually brightens for two to three minutes until fully illuminated. To get the lighting I want I must also turn on the light over the stove (one of those bad incandescent bulbs) because it brightens immediately. So now I am using two lights instead of one. Because turning the CFL on and off is so annoying, it is the one light in the house that we tend to leave on all the time. Why not? It’s so cheap! This situation is analogous to what happened when the government imposed CAFE fuel-efficiency standards: People drove more.

Mandated by Government

Phase 3: Hating to have their recommendations ignored by the ignoramus class, the miffed elitist class takes steps to mandate their beloved product.

Here is a question that never gets a direct or honest answer: If these economical and environment-friendly products are so wonderful, why is it necessary to outlaw competing products? The unsaid answer appears to be: The government, consumer advocates, and environmentalists know what’s best for the consumer.

As Ed Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, put it, “It’s only inferior or unnecessary products that require congressional intervention to survive. Useful or innovative products thrive on their own.”

When Rep. Harman introduced the bipartisan ban on the Edison light bulb, she said, “Only 10 percent of the power used by today’s incandescent bulbs is emitted as light, while the other 90 percent is released as heat.” Let me see if I have this right. Here in Michigan, where we have long, cold winters, the incandescent light bulbs in our family room actually help keep my wife, daughter, and me warm while we watch TV and read. Since the lights in the rest of the house (except for the light over the sink) are all off, why is this considered a problem? In the summer, when it gets dark later, we hardly use the lights. So I fail to see why this issue demands heavy-handed congressional intervention.

The Energy Independence and Security Act, signed by President Bush in 2007, contained the incandescent ban, but it also included a Consumer Awareness Program, authorizing $40 million to help consumers make energy-efficient lighting “choices.” Thus as the government takes away our freedom of choice, it also spends our money to convince us that we really have a choice.

Bad Product

Phase 4: It becomes clear that the consumer’s reluctance was justified. The product is in fact bad. But it doesn’t matter because the old product that worked has been outlawed.

The DOE guidelines for CFLs suggest that they be left on for at least 15 minutes after they are turned on, prompting Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard to comment, “Odd, isn’t it—an energy-saving device that you’re not supposed to turn off?” It turns out that the lifespan of a CFL depends on how many times you turn it on and off. Failure to keep the light on causes the bulbs to burn out just as fast as the Edison bulbs. There go those big savings. So try to get in the habit of not turning off the lights after using the bathroom, a closet, or the laundry room. However, plan to come back 15 minutes later to turn off the light.

And while CFLs that are left on may last ten times longer than incandescent lights, no one is saying that they will fully perform for that long. A Department of Energy study found that after 40 percent of the advertised service life, a quarter of the CFLs started to become dim bulbs. If you don’t mind having dim bulbs for 60 percent of the service life, then CFLs should make you happy.

While these mandated lights may be great for the environment, they are not so great for humans. In some people they trigger headaches or even migraines because of the nearly imperceptible flickering. The BBC reported that the bulbs can also increase the risk of seizures in people with epilepsy. According to the Winnipeg Free Press, the United Kingdom’s Health Protection Agency recommends that people be no closer than about a foot from these lights for more than an hour a day. The ultraviolet radiation emitted by CFLs is like direct sunlight on bare skin. Thus the government is mandating that we all have miniature sun lamps throughout our homes.

But maybe the government light bulb is not really good for the environment after all. It turns out that the each CFL contains five to ten milligrams of mercury. Mercury is one of the most toxic substances on earth; it can cause serious health problems, including nerve and kidney damage. The mandate will result in millions or billions of CFLs ending up in landfills where the mercury will leach out to contaminate the soil and groundwater.

So how do CFLs fit with the EPA’s recommendation that we purchase mercury-free products? It explains that the amount of mercury in the bulbs is much smaller than the amount in old-fashioned thermometers (which are disappearing from households) and watch batteries. Both statements may be true; however, I have never had a thermometer or watch battery explode, shatter, or break the way a light bulb does. It was also my choice to have, or not to have, a mercury-filled thermometer or watch battery. The EPA’s final defense is that the health and environmental risks of CFLs are insignificant compared to the risk presented by the mercury put out by coal-burning power plants.

So what happens if a CFL next to my daughter’s bed breaks? According to the EPA guidelines, I am to: 1) open the windows and evacuate the room for 15 minutes; 2) shut off the heating or air-conditioning system; 3) carefully scoop up the glass using stiff paper and place it in a glass jar or sealable plastic bag; 4) after vacuuming, wipe the canister and put the bag or debris in a sealed plastic bag; and 5) throw away clothing or bedding that comes in contact with the broken glass or the mercury-containing powder. I must not wash contaminated clothing or bedding because mercury fragments may also contaminate the washing machine or pollute the sewage.

Has this convinced you that the health and environmental risks of CFLs are minor?

As a result of the Energy Independence and Security Act, we will be forced to buy new light bulbs for every room in the house that are more expensive, of lower quality, dangerous to our health, and bad for the environment. Given this government mandate, the consumer has three options. The first is to go out and buy up all the old-fashioned Edison bulbs before they become illegal. The second option is to try to get a family discount on hazmat suits. The final option is to just say no to dim bulbs. U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann has proposed the Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act. She is facing extensive opposition from the green lobby, big government, and consumer groups. Sadly, fighting for freedom in this country has become an uphill battle.

  • Michael Heberling is the Chair of Leadership Studies in the Baker College MBA program in Flint, Michigan. Prior to this, he was President of Baker's Center for Graduate Studies for 16 years. Before Baker, Dr. Heberling was a Senior Policy & Business Analyst with the Anteon Corporation. He also had a career in the Air Force retiring as a Lieutenant Colonel. Dr. Heberling has over 75 business and public policy publications. His research interests focus on leadership, military history and the impact of public policy on the business community. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.