Light Bulbs Defy Right-Wing Doom Predictions Again

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JONATHAN CHAIT AUGUST 12, 2010

Light Bulbs Defy Right-Wing Doom Predictions Again

Two years ago, President Bush signed an energy bill raising energy efficiency standards for light bulbs, to take effect in 2012. Libertarians like Andrew Ferguson bemoaned the consumer disaster that would be created by this big government overreach:

The quality of the light given off by CFLs is quite different from what we're used to from incandescents. The old bulb concentrates its light through a small surface area. CFLs don't shine in beams; they glow all the way around, diffusing their illumination. They're terrible reading lights. Many people find fluorescent light itself to be harsh and unpleasant. Moreover--in a variation of the old joke about the restaurant that serves awful food and, even worse, serves it in such small portions--a CFL bulb can take two to three minutes to reach its full illumination after being turned on. And once it's fully aglow, according to Department of Energy guidelines, you need to leave it on for at least 15 minutes. In a typically chipper, pro-ban article last week, U.S. News and World Report explained why: "Turning a CFL on and off frequently shortens its life."

Ferguson's article simply assumed that the higher energy efficiency standards would result in CFL bulbs, the technology then available, taking over the market. He was correct that CFL bulbs had drawbacks that many consumers didn't like. But guess what happened? The market adjusted. Today's New York Times reports:

This week, Home Depot fired a new marketing salvo in what is expected to be a broader national effort to get home customers to adopt LED lighting.

The retail giant began selling one of the light bulbs in its highly energy-efficient lineup at a surprisingly affordable price of just under $20 online. Bricks-and-mortar stores will follow in September.

While $20 hardly sounds like a deal at first blush, such bulbs are expected to last as long as 30 years. Not long ago, such bulbs were not expected by most experts to cost less than $30 until 2012. ...

Unlike compact florescent bulbs, which have been unpopular with consumers because of the pallid light they cast, some newer LED bulbs are closer to the warmth and brightness of the regular incandescent. Home Depot says it is actively encouraging consumers to compare.

Right-wingers extol the powers of the marketplace -- except when it comes to responding to regulation, when the market becomes a pitiful, helpless infant. Every new regulation, from banning child labor to regulating pollution, has brought hysterical predictions of economic mayhem from the right. They keep failing to come to fruition. Conservatives can't seem to imagine that the market can respond to reasonable direction efficiently.

Ferguson's 2008 denunciation of light bulb standards ends on a morbid note:

But back to the screwees--those American consumers, also known, not so long ago, as the citizens of the United States, a free people, rulers of the world's proudest self-governing nation. Will there be protests of some kind, expressions of disgust at least? And what if there aren't? What if, as the ban slowly tightens, we hear nothing, not a howl, not a peep, just a long mellow moo? Then maybe it really will be time to turn out the lights.

And what will we hear when the new standards go into effect and... it works out just fine? A rethinking of libertarian doctrine? Perhaps even the thought that the economy might respond well to a price on carbon, just as it responded to previous pollution standards far more cheaply than predicted? Or will it be one long mellow moo?

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posted in: jonathan chait, home depot, today's new york times, united states, andrew ferguson, bush, department of energy

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