Bloomberg: Need a Light Bulb? Uncle Sam Gets to Choose
... No Polished Wonkery
Though anti-populist in the extreme, the bulb ban in fact evinces none of the polished wonkery you’d expect from sophisticated technocrats. For starters, it’s not clear what the point is. Why should the government try to make consumers use less electricity? There’s no foreign policy reason. Electricity comes mostly from coal, natural gas and nuclear plants, all domestic sources. So presumably the reason has something to do with air pollution or carbon-dioxide emissions.
But banning light bulbs is one of the least efficient ways imaginable to attack those problems. A lamp using power from a clean source is treated the same as a lamp using power from a dirty source. A ban gives electricity producers no incentive to reduce emissions.
Nor does it allow households to make choices about how best to conserve electricity. A well-designed policy would allow different people to make different tradeoffs among different uses to produce the most happiness (“utility” in econ-speak) for a given amount of power. Maybe I want to burn a lot of incandescent bulbs but dry my clothes outdoors and keep the air conditioner off. Maybe I want to read by warm golden light instead of watching a giant plasma TV.
Only Use Matters
What matters, from a public policy perspective, isn’t any given choice but the total amount of electricity I use (which is itself only a proxy for the total emissions caused by generating that electricity). If they’re really interested in environmental quality, policy makers shouldn’t care how households get to that total. They should just raise the price of electricity, through taxes or higher rates, to discourage using it.
Instead, the law raises the price of light bulbs, but not the price of using them. In fact, its supporters loudly proclaim that the new bulbs will cost less to use. If true, the savings could encourage people to keep the lights on longer.
Even if you care nothing about individual freedom or aesthetic pleasure, this ham-handed approach wouldn’t pass muster in a classroom at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. As pollution control, it’s horribly inefficient.
The bulb ban makes sense only one of two ways: either as an expression of cultural sanctimony, with a little technophilia thrown in for added glamour, or as a roundabout way to transfer wealth from the general public to the few businesses with the know-how to produce the light bulbs consumers don’t really want to buy.
Or, of course, as both.
So where are the cries of crony capitalism when it comes to lightbulb manufacturing? ;-)