Not a bright idea

Posted: May 13, 2007 12:00 AM
Not a bright idea

Thomas Edison must be rolling over in his grave. Nikola Tesla is spinning in his. Yes, switch on the politics for the Battle the Bulb: The light bulb faces a government ban.

Edison worked up a sweat to find a filament that would “burn” long enough to make electric light economical for households everywhere. A few decades later one of his employees came up with an even better filament, tungsten. Civilization has been lighting its nights and darker corners with light bulbs ever since.

Genius may be x percent inspiration and y percent perspiration, but Edison’s x wasn’t the same as Tesla’s x. A few year’s after Edison’s first light bulb, Tesla introduced fluorescent lights, which sprouted from his head like Athena from the brow of Zeus, or hair from a follicle — that is, without much sweat. And by the 1920s this technology had developed well enough to become a major competitor to the incandescent bulb.

Fluorescents were much cheaper to brighten a room, and many businesses put them in warehouses and even show rooms, despite their slightly strange, deranged white light.

A few decades ago, Tesla’s lamps went through another design revolution: the compact fluorescent lamp, or CFL. The familiar tube of the standard fluorescent lamp was decreased in size, twisted into a convenient swirl, and attached to a control gear (to limit the current) in just such a way as to enable the CFL to be screwed into a light bulb socket. Voilà! Finally, a real challenge to the incandescent light bulb!

CFLs cost less to run, in most uses. A lot less. You can save more than $30 in electricity per the average life of one of these devices, in the time that you’d run a series of incandescent bulbs.

The trouble with cost-saving technology is often that you have to pay more up front. This means that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to save money over the long haul: the outlay costs deter you from long-term savings. (That’s a problem the poor have on all sorts of things. The long term might be said to be the chief problem of the poor. But that’s another story.)

But the situation is getting better. CFLs were expensive in their early days; they are not so costly now. Not long ago each commanded prices higher than a Compact Disc; now one can be had for as low as an iTunes download or two. So even the most hedonistic, present-moment, time-horizon-deficient lout can now be tempted to buy them.

My wife started buying them from Wal-Mart some time back. Wal-Mart prides itself on its CFL advocacy and cheap delivery of these cost-savings devices. Yet, for some reason, praise for the company tends to be muted.

Sadly, there’s a dark side to this bright story.

Yes, today we have an amazing amount of lighting choices: CFLs, incandescents, LEDs, halogen bulbs, an amazing assortment of options.

But politicians now want to limit those choices.

I guess we could say that politicians don’t like the fact that Wal-Mart can claim to have done some good for overall energy efficiency. They want to steal Wal-Mart’s thunder. They want to mandate CFLs by outlawing incandescents.

Let me pause for a moment here. I’ve been working in the political realm for decades now. And every time some politician or activist cooks up a new cause, a new regulation or tax, I wonder if anything could be more absurd than this.

Now I have to wonder again. This is a truly stupid idea.

Why stupid? Well, I’m pretty certain no sane person would want to run CFLs for every lighting use. I prefer normal incandescent bulbs for reading . . . and I prefer brighter halogen light bulbs even more. (Still, indirect sunlight is best.) And for night-lights, a specially designed LED works better than either incandescents or CFLs. That’s my opinion; you might choose differently.

That’s one of the great things about markets: we get to choose.

Until politicians start meddling.

Australian politicians have already pushed through pro-CFL, anti-Edisonian legislation, enforcing a massive technology switch. The European Union is heading that way pell-mell. And there are Dems and Reps in Congress talking about doing the same thing, here.


To save energy! To save the environment! They look at the big picture and imagine every incandescent replaced with a CFL, and they calculate just how much less coal would have to be burned, and . . . they become impatient.

That’s all it is, really. They are impatient with Americans’ learning curve. Americans are indeed switching forms of lighting, at least in many halls and rooms of their homes and offices, but a few politicians and environmentalists just can’t wait. They want to force more people to switch faster.

Funny thing is, there’s mercury in those CFLs. Mercury is what makes the light. And, when you break one of those bulbs, clean-up should be done carefully.

Worse yet, if you listen to those same people (politicians, environmental alarmists) about how dangerous even the smallest amount of mercury can be, you’d hire thousand-dollar clean-up crews every time you break a bulb.

So much for cheaper!

Of course, the amount of mercury in a CFL is smaller than in an old thermometer, which, if you’re my age, you probably deliberately broke apart to play with the quicksilver when you were a kid. And lived to tell the tale.

That’s common sense talking, though. Politicians and alarmists, on the other hand, tend to lurch in the other direction, and usually we’d expect them to outlaw CFLs, not mandate them. CFL tech is precisely the kind of tech that the Ralph Naders of this world tend to hate: the kind that corporations “push” on us “regardless” of the “harm” it “inflicts.”

Truth is, of course, this is a world of trade-offs. Nothing is completely safe. And even environmentalists find themselves backing one dangerous technology over another. Why? To save the planet. (See any parallels between years of opposition to nuclear power, and the rising tide of environmentalists who now support it?)

I don’t want the planet to go down any more than you do. But I think most sensible people can agree that outlawing incandescent bulbs is no way to save anything but the principle of totalitarian coercion. Let the market choose this one — that is, let people choose. Let them choose which costs to consider, which risks to worry about more.

And tell all who would forbid us Edison’s technology that we’d rather fight than . . . have them tell us how to switch.