Entries Tagged as 'light bulbs'

Can Conservatives and Scientists Get Along?

August 2nd, 2011 at 12:24 am 42 Comments

Last week, pilule Chris Mooney, cialis sale science blogger and author of The Republican War on Science, asked David Frum to come on the “Point of Inquiry” podcast to discuss conservatives and science, and David was kind enough to ask that I be included in the conversation. The interview can now be found online here.

The discussion was wide-ranging, dealing with topics including global warming, evolution, vaccines, nuclear power, light bulbs, John Edwards, postmodernism and more. Mooney, who describes his own political views as liberal, showed an interest in discussing not just conservatism’s foibles regarding science but what blind spots the leftward side of the political spectrum may have on such matters.

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Want to Fight Federal Over-reach? Start Here

July 21st, 2011 at 9:39 am 22 Comments

When the House of Representatives last week voted for the “BULB Act”—a proposal its sponsors said would lift a coming federal ban on incandescent light bulbs—plenty of Tea Party supporters and others rejoiced at a major victory for limited government. Plenty of others, it’s true, had fair criticisms of it but, personally, I would have voted for the BULB Act as a way of striking back against government overreach. That said, the attention the bill has received as a touchstone of conservative governance (the organization I work for supported it very loudly) shows just how far off track the conservative regulatory policy agenda has gone and how Republicans have let symbolic actions substitute for real achievements.

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Don’t Ban Bad Bulbs, Tax Them

April 18th, 2011 at 1:13 pm 14 Comments

In a recent article, see fellow FrumForum contributor David Jenkins discusses light bulbs, mentions high flow toilets and then, talking about automobile fuel efficiency standards, asks, “Does anyone today really believe that consumer choice has been hurt by having these standards?” Yes, I do believe so.

Before 1996, consumers who had four or five children or occasionally needed to carry a bit more cargo than fits into a typical trunk did not have to choose only between minivans and SUVs, but also had a choice of different car models. For example, station wagon versions of both Chevrolet Caprice and Buick Roadmaster could seat up to 8 passengers (or alternatively carry a significant amount of cargo). Those cars were more spacious than many minivans and SUVs, but unlike minivans and SUVs, they were low (like virtually any car), did not require any climbing to get into, did not block the view of drivers behind them and had a low center of gravity. The latter meant that they were rather unlikely to roll over and extremely unlikely to go over a guardrail – something that unfortunately cannot be said about many minivan and SUV models.

Nowadays if consumers try to compensate for this safety reduction by buying some of the biggest SUVs on the market, they actually get vehicles with a lot less fuel efficiency than station wagons. Furthermore, the fuel savings from stricter CAFE standards are lower in practice than in theory. Not only do people often start driving more after switching to a more fuel efficient vehicle, but sometimes people also take two cars instead of one or make two trips instead of one when a car just is not spacious enough (this is not mere speculation – I’m speaking from experience).

On top of that, reduced consumer choice causes some people to delay buying a new car and to continue driving an older vehicle burning more fuel and emitting more pollution than a new vehicle of even the same size and weight would (again, speaking from experience – Al Gore will have to pry my aging six-seat Cadillac from my cold dead fingers).  Finally, restricting consumer choice of spacious vehicles may deter some people from having bigger families, and that’s the last thing we need when the national debt is projected to explode and the ratio of workers to retirees is projected to shrink.

I agree with Mr. Jenkins that we should not “have wasteful high flow toilets even in the arid West where water is scarce”. Or high flow showers for that matter (although, once again, the savings are exaggerated since low flow toilets are often flushed more frequently). But why should this be any business of the federal government?! Unlike, say, the national energy market, the water supply is highly fragmented, and conditions very greatly from place to place. E.g. the Upper Michigan Peninsula is scarcely populated and surrounded by fresh water. Why should the residents there suffer the same restrictions as people in Utah?

Conservatives should stand up for federalism. Besides, in terms of good management of water resources it would be better if more people lived in areas with abundant water and fewer people resided in arid areas. But the current one-size-fits-all federal standards do absolutely nothing to encourage such patterns of human settlement.

Now back to the main topic – the light bulbs. First, an important matter of principle. Why shouldn’t people actually be free to waste their own money if they so desire? As a practical matter, the energy savings from CFL bulbs may be largely illusory. Most incandescent light bulb use happens during the season when daylight is short, i.e. during the season when homes are also being heated. The energy that the incandescent light bulb consumes but fails to turn into visible light does not just disappear – it turns into heat. That’s not a waste at all if the house needs to be heated anyway! So the incandescent light bulb is essentially 100% efficient during the colder and darker half of the year when it is used most. CFL bulbs use less energy all right, but then more energy is used for heating (in case anybody is wondering, I have quite a few CFL bulbs, but I mostly use them as outdoor lighting).

Also, people often behave irrationally when small environmental risks are involved (just witness the recent reaction of many people on the West Coast to the nuclear incident in Japan, even though within the first several minutes of the earthquake – once the chain reaction stopped in all reactors – there was 100% certainty of no adverse health impact on the US). So when some carpet gets steam cleaned just because a minuscule amount of mercury from a broken CFL bulb got absorbed or when some small child gets driven to a hospital after touching some broken pieces, quite a lot of energy savings from CFL bulbs will be offset in an instant. Anyway, residential lighting consumes only a small fraction of electricity produced in the US, and the difference in efficiency between incandescent and CFL bulbs could be easily made up by just a few nuclear reactors. So there’s no good reason to single out light bulbs for the environmental consequences of power production and depletion of fossil fuel reserves.

This brings me to another important matter of principle. Just what grounds can the government possibly have for banning a product that is not harmful? If having some indirect potentially harmful effects is all it takes, then what cannot be banned?! E.g. why not ban organic food? After all, farmland is a finite and quite limited resource. While there are many fossil fuel deposits out there that have not even been discovered yet, we know we are not going to discover any new land. In the meanwhile the population of the planet is growing, and more and more food is needed. Expansion of farmland destroys rainforests from Brazil to Indonesia and encroaches on the habitat of many threatened species (such as tigers and elephants). Furthermore, while serious armed conflicts over fossil fuels are very rare, people fight over farmland every day, and rising food prices also cause a lot of political instability (which, incidentally, is one of the main reasons for the recent increase in oil prices – so it can be said that organic food pushes our energy costs up).

We need to keep increasing agricultural efficiency through all available technological means, and organic farming is a move in exactly the opposite direction. So why not effectively ban it by imposing efficiency standards on food producers?! Yes, I know that many people prefer the taste of organic food, and some people even say non-organic food makes them sick. But then many people prefer the light from incandescent bulbs, and some even say CFL bulbs make them sick. Why should the preferences of one group have more weight than those of another? In the absence of clear principles it may all come down to who has better lobbyists, or as a minimum it may come to be perceived that way. That’s not good for the health of a representative democracy.

I suggest that conservatives more or less embrace the principle of consumer choice, even if not to the same degree as libertarians. If there are compelling reasons to reduce waste of resources, increased efficiency can usually be achieved through carefully targeted taxation. As much as possible, instead of saying “You cannot have this!” the government should merely be telling consumers “How badly do you want this?” We don’t really need CAFE standards – all we need is to expand the long-existing gas guzzler tax. Instead of raising fuel efficiency standards once in a while, we could just legislate for the gas guzzler tax threshold to go up half a mile per gallon or so annually for the next 20 years (with the tax itself being highly progressive with respect to lower mileage – ranging, say, from $100 for Crown Victoria to $20,000 for Hummer).

This way consumers who really want big vehicles for whatever reason could still have them (albeit at a premium), the government would get more revenue, fuel efficiency would still be increasing and manufacturers would actually have incentives to make even minor tweaks on inefficient vehicles rather than just discontinue them or leave them as they are (e.g. increasing a car cost by $100 to make it slightly more fuel efficient would actually make perfect sense if the gas guzzler tax could thus be reduced by $200). All sorts of electric appliances could be similarly taxed if they aren’t meeting some efficiency standards. The government could also impose a relatively significant tax on residential electric bills with a certain amount of power consumption being exempt (in fact some electric companies already charge more for consumption above a certain level). And, of course, a carbon tax is vastly superior to cap-n-trade.

A transparent tax is also superior to a ban or heavy regulation as far as good governance is concerned. As much as possible, when the government imposes costs (both financial and other) on citizens, those costs should be fully acknowledged as the government’s doing, so that frustrated customers don’t blame private companies but rather know that they should take the matter up with their representatives if so inclined. And if the representatives are not willing to defend the imposition before their constituents, well, maybe they shouldn’t impose those costs in the first place.