Thursday, July 14, 2011

100-watt lightbulbs: A marketing case study or a fight for freedom?

The government would like to see traditional 100-watt lightbulbs replaced with corkscrewy, “energy-efficient” fluorescent bulbs.

As I was reading this article in THE WEEK magazine, I couldn’t help wonder if this really what lightbulb marketers had in mind when they developed such an innovation.

“Are you stockpiling incandescent lightbulbs?” said Rick Moran in “You should.” As of January 2012, the traditional 100-watt lightbulbs most of us grew up with will be contraband items in Barack Obama’s America, replaced—in a fit of  “nanny-state nonsense”—by those dim, corkscrewy, “energy-efficient” fluorescent bulbs. The fluorescents are far more expensive, give skin a corpse-like pallor, and contain a trace amount of the toxic element mercury. Should you drop one, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that you open your windows and leave the room for 10 minutes. The real issue here is freedom, not safety, said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial. Most Americans prefer traditional lightbulbs, which is why they’re now engaging in an act of “civil disobedience” by stockpiling them. If the new fluorescents are so superior, “why does the government have to force people to buy them?”

Those arguments are “light on facts,” said Robert Farley in the St. Petersburg, Fla., Times. Much as conservatives would love to spin the government’s new bulb standards as a “socialist assault on free enterprise” by the tyrannical Obama administration, the bill in question—which will phase out incandescent bulbs of 75 watts and 50 watts in future years—was actually signed into law in 2007 by President George W. Bush. Because fluorescent bulbs last for thousands of hours, they’re actually significantly less expensive than the cheap old bulbs, which burn out or break easily. And the law does not  “ban” incandescent lightbulbs. Manufacturers are simply required to make new bulbs 25 percent more efficient than the average bulb today. If you insist on an incandescent bulb, all the major lightbulb companies are now making incandescent halogen bulbs that meet efficiency standards, and produce light like that of the classics.

That isn’t the point, said Virginia Postrel in If government bureaucrats want to curb electricity use so that we pump less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, then they should just impose a new tax on electricity, to make it more expensive. That would at least give individuals the choice of whether they wanted more “efficient” new bulbs. But nanny-state regulators don’t believe in giving individuals a choice. They’d rather express their “cultural sanctimony” by deciding, in the marbled palaces in Washington, what food we eat, what cars we drive, and what kind of bulbs we plug into our bedroom lamps.

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