Illustration by Javier Jaén
Illustration by Javier Jaén

If you want to know why so many Americans feel alienated from their government, you need only go to Target and check out the light bulb aisle. Instead of the cheap commodities of yesteryear, you’ll find what looks like evidence of a flourishing, technology-driven economy.

There are “ultrasoft” bulbs promising “softer soft white longer life” light, domed halogens for “bright crisp light” and row upon row of Energy Smart bulbs -- some curled in the by-now-familiar compact fluorescent form, some with translucent shells that reveal only hints of the twisting tubes within.

It seems to be a dazzling profusion of choice. But, at least in California, where I live, this plenitude no longer includes what most shoppers want: an inexpensive, plain-vanilla 100-watt incandescent bulb. Selling them is now illegal here. The rest of the country has until the end of the year to stock up before a federal ban kicks in. (I have a stash in storage.) Over the next two years, most lower-wattage incandescents will also disappear.

This is not how the story was supposed to go. When compact fluorescent light bulbs were new, promoters sold them as a market-oriented, win-win proposition. They were like “lite” beer: the same great illumination, for a fraction of the electric bill.

But, as with beer, not everyone was convinced. Some consumers didn’t like the high out-of-pocket cost. (A basic CFL runs about three times the initial price of the equivalent incandescent.) Some didn’t like that bulbs could take a while to build up to full intensity.

You Look Blue

Some didn’t like the occasional flicker. And a lot didn’t like the light. Its bluish cast lacks the warmth of traditional incandescents and gives skin tones a somewhat deathly tinge. “Fluorescent is just not attractive,” a resolute restaurant designer once told me. “I don’t care what they say.”

One serious technophile, University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, spent much of 2007 flogging compact fluorescents on his popular Instapundit blog, eventually persuading more than 1,900 readers to swap 19,871 incandescent bulbs for CFLs. To this day, the Instapundit group is by far the largest participant at OneBillionBulbs.com, a bulb-switching campaign organized by the consulting firm Symmetric Technologies. But Reynolds himself has changed his mind.

“I’m deeply, deeply disappointed with CFL bulbs,” he wrote last month on his blog. “I replaced pretty much every regular bulb in the house with CFLs, but they’ve been failing at about the same rate as ordinary long-life bulbs, despite the promises of multiyear service. And I can’t tell any difference in my electric bill. Plus, the Insta-Wife hates the light.”

What Americans Like

By the end of last year, CFLs had managed to capture only 25 percent of the general-purpose light-bulb market -- a decent business, sure, but hardly the radical transformation evangelists were going for. Most Americans, for most purposes, have stuck to traditional incandescents.

So the activists offended by the public’s presumed wastefulness took a more direct approach. They joined forces with the big bulb producers, who had an interest in replacing low-margin commodities with high-margin specialty wares, and, with help from Congress and President George W. Bush, banned the bulbs people prefer.

It was an inside job. Neither ordinary consumers nor even organized interior designers had a say. Lawmakers buried the ban in the 300-plus pages of the 2007 energy bill, and very few talked about it in public. It was crony capitalism with a touch of green.

Of such deals are Tea Parties born.

It’s a Ban

Now, I realize that by complaining about the bulb ban -- indeed, by calling it a ban -- I am declaring myself an unsophisticated rube, the sort of person who supposedly takes marching orders from Rush Limbaugh. In a New York Times article last month, Penelope Green set people like me straight. The law, she patiently explained, “simply requires that companies make some of their incandescent bulbs work a bit better, meeting a series of rolling deadlines between 2012 and 2014.”

True, the law doesn’t affect all bulbs -- just the vast majority. (It exempts certain special types, like the one in your refrigerator.) The domed halogen bulbs meet the new standards yet are technically incandescents; judging from my personal experiments, they produce light similar to that of old-fashioned bulbs. They do, however, cost twice as much as traditional bulbs and, if the packages are to be believed, don’t last as long.

Washington Knows Best

Strictly speaking, it’s also true that the rules are neither mandates nor bans. They’re standards: We don’t tell you how to reduce the amount of energy your light bulb consumes. We just tell you that it can’t use more than a certain amount.

It’s as though, to spur innovation and encourage Americans to lose weight, Washington had decreed that no beer shall contain more than 8 calories an ounce. That wouldn’t technically be a ban on traditional brews, but nobody but a pedant or a flack would call it anything else.

Back when consumers weren’t paying attention, ban supporters weren’t so coy. “Bipartisan Bill Declares ‘Lights Out’ on Older, Inefficient Technology,” boasted the 2007 press release from the ban’s original sponsor, Senator Jeff Bingaman, a New Mexico Democrat. “By 2014, the traditional incandescent light bulbs found in approximately 4 billion U.S. light sockets will be virtually obsolete.”

A Bipartisan Mistake

Though sponsored largely by Democrats, the ban was a bipartisan effort. It never would have become law without support from Republican senators and the signature of President Bush. Through filibuster and veto threats, Republicans got other changes in the 2007 energy bill -- changes that had vocal corporate constituencies -- but they didn’t fight the light bulb ban. Maybe it seemed like progress. It was certainly pro-business.

“The entire discussion of ‘phaseout of least- efficient general service light bulbs’ has been at the industry’s initiative,” Kyle Pitsor, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association lobbyist told Bingaman’s committee in 2007 testimony. “This is not a case of manufacturers dragging their heels, but of leading the way. New standards-setting legislation is needed in order to further educate consumers on the benefits of energy-efficient products.”

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.

(Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this column: Virginia Postrel in Los Angeles at vpostrel@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net