TIMOTHY NOAH MARCH 20, 2012
Mitt Romney has decided that light bulbs represent liberalism's soft underbelly. Actually, they don't. The replacement of incandescent light bulbs with more energy-efficient alternatives is at best a minor inconvenience. (My only complaint is that I can't yet find any three-way light bulbs at my supermarket, though apparently three-way CFLs do exist and can be purchased on Amazon.) And as multiple sources have pointed out, Romney is quite wrong to blame this on "Obama's regulators" because the law mandating the change was signed into law by President George W. Bush and passed both houses of Congress with a clear bipartisan majority. Granted, they wouldn't have done it without a lot of prodding from environmentalists, but for consumers the nuisance factor is about as minimal as it gets.
A much more vulnerable target for anti-regulatory ire is the low-flow toilet, bequeathed by a law--passed in 1992 under President George H.W. "Poppy" Bush, so you can't blame this on Democrats either--that mandates a very stingy 1.6 gallons per flush, as compared to the traditional three to five gallons. For at least the first generation of post-regulatory toilets, one of which I have the misfortune to own, 1.6 gallons is not sufficient. (Thank God I don't live in California, where you get only 1.28 gallons.) This problem doesn't get discussed much, even by conservatives, because the details are disgusting. Romney is resistant to discussing it because (according to the recent Romney biography by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman) he has such a severe gag reflex to the variety of human waste most resistant to flushing that he was unable (or at least unwilling) to change his (five!) children's diapers unless it could be ascertained that the substance designated for removal was only pee. (I found myself wondering, as I read Kranish and Helman, whether it meant he changed no diapers at all, since my recollection of this operation is that you often don't know what you're dealing with until you get under the hood. Incidentally, Gail Collins, if you're reading this? You're welcome.)
Sen. Rand Paul, R.-Ky., doesn't have the same handicap, and famously stated at a Senate hearing last year, "Frankly, the toilets don't work in my house, and I blame you." He was wrong, Consumer Reports pointed out, to blame the witness in question, a deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency at the Energy department, because DOE doesn't actually regulate the porcelain throne. But I feel his pain. According to Consumer Reports' most recent survey (subscription required for full access), fewer than half the 26 toilets rated scored "excellent" on "solid waste removal," which the magazine tested using "a measured mix of baby wipes, sponges, plastic balls, and tubes." Nearly all scored "very good" or better in this category, but my own feeling is that this is an area where nothing less than "excellent" will do, especially when you're spending $300 or more. (Amazingly, American Standard charges $500 for one model--the Cadet FloWise Pressure 2462.100--that rates a mere "very good" from CR in this category.) If I were more conspiracy-minded I'd wonder whether the plunger industry has bought off the toilet manufacturers.
Tyler Cowen, the George Mason economist and blogger, suggests in his good-natured and characteristically eccentric critique of my forthcoming book, The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis And What We Can Do About It, that the solution to income inequality is "more innovations which benefit virtually everybody," consistent with the argument in his recent book The Great Stagnation. "If there were a new invention as important as the toilet," Cowen writes, "shareholders would not and could not appropriate most of the gains." This overlooks the obvious fact that the 1992 regulatory mandate required the virtual reinvention of the device known to Thomas Crapper and his 19th century contemporaries. (Crapper, I'm sorry to report, did not invent it, though he did popularize it.) Whether this reinvention has occurred I cannot judge until I sample CR's top choice, American Standard's Champion 4.2002.014, which retails for about $300. Its solid-waste CR rating is "excellent" (though one commenter claims "must flush at least 2x for either solid or, um, not so solid #2 waste to go down," which I deem unacceptable). If the toilet has been reinvented successfully then clearly Cowen is wrong, since it has yet to transform the market for this appliance, much less the wider economy. If it hasn't then that's pretty good ammunition for an anti-regulatory conservative like Paul who lacks Romney's squeamishness. Though I prefer to think of it as a temporary market failure. If we can put a man on the moon, etc.
Incidentally, Cowen also says I should have embraced as a solution to growing income inequality "encourage conversions to Mormonism," a solution Romney probably wouldn't resist, though I doubt he'd embrace it openly. Unfortunately, I can't make out what Cowen's reasoning is, and my efforts to find Cowen elaborating on this point elsewhere were in vain. I urge him to explain. If nothing else, it would help get my head out of the toilet.