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Another Forced-Innovation Fiasco

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
The light bulb serves as the symbol for invention, for that Eureka! of inspiration.

It seems somehow fitting that Congress has slated the Edison filament bulb for extinction. Socialism is the promotion of stasis; government is a sinkhole of creativity: by interfering in the marketplace for indoor lighting, the U.S. government is doing what governments too often do, squelch what’s good in private enterprise under the illusion that force and bureaucracy and political pressure groups “know better” than people in their ordinary lives and in their jobs. Congress’s five-year-old legislation requires that lightbulbs sold this year and after increase in efficiency by 25 percent. The legislation coincided with the development of those curly CFC bulbs, so the law’s initial effect was to push that newish technology.

Not a bright idea.

Those curly CFC bulbs contain mercury (a dangerous poison, other government officials tell us in other contexts) and don’t work nearly as well as stated, occasionally catching fire to go up in smoke (I’ve seen one fume up a huge room with a poisonous stench). So perhaps that’s why Congress changed the name of its legislation, from the Clean Energy Act of 2007 to the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

Could “Clean energy” have been even too big a stretch for Congress?

The idea is to save money, save resources overall. But, like usual in government, politicians — by narrowly focusing on the notion of economy — are costing us more in the end. While incandescent bulbs are cheap up front, the CFCs are supposed to have a low total cost of ownership. Thus the poor people forced to buy replacements will suffer only in the short run.

Except, of course, that the CFC bulbs are unreliable. Too many fizzle out way before the much-ballyhooed expiration date.

And then there are those that catch fire.

Which, for a congressman, probably only serves to justify the $10 million dollar prize included in the 2007 legislation, a sort of X Prize for lightbulb innovation.

Great idea, right? The Ansari X Prize was quite a spur to private spacecraft development.

Well, count on government to get it wrong.

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.

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