Paul Jacob

The prize has been awarded. The lightbulb is coming our way. Expect it at a “hardware store near you,” writes Katherine Mangu-Ward in Reason magazine. But the product has a few problems. “It will cost you 50 bucks. It also fails to meet many of the original prize specifications.” And as Ms. Mangu-Ward explains, the specifications were ill-conceived to begin with . . . and the winner of the prize is an LED-based bulb that is already out-paced by further innovations from its current competition. As the new bulb hits the market, better alternatives will be appearing alongside it.

But that won’t matter, because in a government environment, you need not deliver the best quality at least expense — you aim for lucrative government contracts and other bennies associated with “preferential treatment by federal buyers and others major players who are beholden to the feds, such as the many utility companies offering subsidies to customers who purchase the bulbs,” as Mangu-Ward puts it.

It is worth thinking how different the government method of forced innovation and insider advantages is from, say, innovation in the post-PC portable device market. There, innovation is fostered by companies actually making interesting products that people want to buy, that transform their lives in practical ways as well as send enticing shocks of “coolness” that help justify initially high prices. Here, in the indoor lighting market, some of that is indeed going on, but government’s heavy hand proceeds to waste resources by pushing expensive bulbs encumbered with already out-dated technology . . . making one company, Philips, a whole lot richer.

Real innovation could come from anywhere. Perhaps MIT’s new diode will pave the way. Perhaps some garage-shop inventor will. Maybe the biggest innovation will be in people switching off lights the better to read e-books on their iPads.

But whatever the innovation, it should only be tested as worthwhile at the market level. It has to cost out in production as well as distribution, and the risked funds should be private, not public. And the determinants of success should be relevant to actual market conditions, not skewed by political grandstanding, bureaucratic hubris, and regulated-industry insider deals.

Meanwhile, as Congress pretends it knows how best to force us to spend less on lighting, our august solons can’t figure out how to spend less money even as the debt they have racked up threatens to implode the government and the economy.

My lightbulb idea? Switch off spending. Last one to leave a decommissioned bureau, turn off the lights.

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.