Battle of the Bulb

The NYT covers the resistance movement against incandescent light bulb bans. I think most of the resistance’s arguments are flimsy. Good-quality CFLs have better color reproduction and much longer lifetimes than incandescents. Start up times are now pretty fast, flicker is not a problem, and cold weather operation is fine outdoors, even here in Montana. Bad-quality bulbs are more problematic, but you get what you pay for; if you pay for quality, you still come out ahead with CFLs.

Still, I sympathize with the resistance, because an outright ban makes little sense. CFLs don’t work in some applications, and don’t even save energy or money when used in locations that are infrequently on. They also make lousy chicken incubators. Instead, we should ban inefficient lighting economically, by pricing GHGs, local air quality, light pollution, energy security, and whatever else motivates us to seek efficient lighting in the first place. Then incandescents can stick around for things that make sense, and disappear for things that don’t. The resistance won’t have to hoard bulbs, because they can run their little tungsten filaments as long as they feel like paying for the privelege. While we’re at it, we should price mercury, so the indoor and outdoor pollution effects of CFL disposal and coal combustion are properly traded off.

Command and control is so 20th century.

6 thoughts on “Battle of the Bulb”

  1. It’s much more cost-effective for all involved, from an economics point-of-view, to do it economically. And we probably wouldn’t have to put up with people “resisting” it.

    It’s very interesting (and despairing as well) to see how politicians and consumers all seem to prefer standards (such as a ban) and people seem to enjoy it too. It’s the least fair, in terms of distribution effects, of all instruments available.

  2. It truly is a puzzle. It seems like there is a vocal majority espousing free market values, but also a vocal majority that’s opposed to pricing anything that they actually consume. I don’t know if this is a huge misunderstanding of how markets work, or two different groups of people, or what, but it makes it really hard to act intelligently.

    The CAFE standard is another great example of an inefficient mandate. Even without the bogus ‘flex-fuel’ credits, the whole framework makes little sense. It would be more efficient to raise fuel taxes, but people would absolutely freak out, even though objectively it ought to be in their own interest.

  3. Good example; I’ve argued against CAFE in the past. I think consumers intuitively know the increase in price will result in less miles travelled (reduced utility), so CAFE standard transmits the idea the responsibility will be on the manufacturer’s side, making the car more fuel efficient, and consequently lowering the cost per mile. You would be, theoretically, driving the same (most likely, more), but it would cost you less. Have your cake and eat it too.

    My argument in that gains in the cost per mile will mean more miles travelled, and consequently the same (or increased) pollution, depletion and more congestion. All adding to externalities, I’m afraid.

  4. All adding to externalities, I’m afraid.

    Exactly. Then on top of that, higher fuel economy lowers fuel tax revenue, so there’s less dough for dealing with congestion.

    Also, CAFE puts the constraint at the manufacturer portfolio, which means that the burden is uncorrelated with vehicle usage. That means vehicle choices to consumers are distorted. Manufacturer incentives probably are too (there’s no way for a company to benefit from having an entirely high-mileage portfolio, for example).

    Of course, the incentives are distorted far more by the idiotic car/SUV split and the new methodology that relates mileage standards to vehicle footprint. Together those are sort of a bizarre property rights allocation that rewards bloated vehicles.

    CAFE in effect forces manufacturers to internally tax inefficient vehicles and subsidize efficient ones. But efficient vehicles still pollute, make up noise, and take up space, so why would we want to subsidize them? (Same goes for tax credits on hybrids and other alt fuel vehicles.)

    It’s really discouraging how much resistance there is to policies that even remotely make sense.

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