01/22/2014 04:12 pm ET | Updated Mar 24, 2014

Light Bulb Angst: Grow Up

We are told that the world as we know it will end when an overreaching government phases out incandescent lights and forces consumers to purchase more efficient bulbs. Those to the right of center claim that the government should get out of the way and let consumers make their own choices. The government cannot pick winners and losers; only the magic of the market can do that. We hear claims that this is the worst case of governmental intrusion and excessive regulation.

That argument of overreach is disingenuous, tired, simplistic and wrong. Yes, in the vast majority of cases, market forces are the most efficient means of determining what should be sold at what price. Capitalism is extraordinarily successful. But we've learned from the days of the robber barons that unchecked capitalism has problems; so too have we learned since the days of Rachel Carson that the market does not always lead us to desirable environmental outcomes. The argument against phasing out incandescent bulbs is old and tired because we have been here before, hearing the same refrains of lament and grief about excessive regulation in the face of necessary and reasonable government action; and we are going through the same worn out steps to prevent the obvious; let's see how this always plays out.

First we as a society learn of a potential harm caused by common practice; take smoking as an example, or the use of leaded gasoline. Industry denies any problems, and usually counters with an argument that the practice is actually beneficial. Then scientists discover and confirm that the practice is indeed harmful (smoking causes cancer; lead causes problems with neural development). Industry counters with a barrage of ads and sponsored studies with biased results to confuse the public. Nevertheless, the evidence mounts, and industry claims become more absurd and desperate. Remember the spectacle of all those tobacco executives sitting before the senate saying with straight faces that smoking does not cause cancer? Then finally, the change that should have occurred decades earlier finally does, with billions of dollars lost and millions of lives impacted or ruined. Tobacco gets regulated as a medical device; and lead is removed from gasoline. Miraculously we see none of the catastrophic consequences predicted by opponents: the world does not collapse, the economy does not stop functioning, and mom and pop stores continue to thrive in the newly regulated world.

We all know the tobacco story so let's see how this scenario played out with lead in gasoline, which seems now to be taken for granted; then we'll see how this relates to the issue of incandescent bulbs beyond the obvious that both involve government regulations that ban the manufacturing and distribution of a product widely used by the general public.

Dates and sources for quotes below are found here. Also, the full history of the phasedown of lead in gasoline is captured in a report authored by Richard Newell and Kristian Rogers. The economics of the phasedown is expertly described by Joel Schwartz, Hugh Pitcher et al. in a paper published in 1985.

So, let's begin. In 1965, Clair Patterson published the first study to demonstrate that high levels of lead in the environment (water, air, soil) were man-made and constituted a potential health threat. Just as they would do later with climate change denials, the American Petroleum Institute countered with the claim that "the mass of evidence proves unquestionably that lead isn't a significant factor in air pollution and represents no public health problem in any way." (Wall Street Journal, Sept. 9, 1965). Sound familiar?

A few months later, in December of that same year, Harriet Hardy of MIT argued that small doses of lead could be a contributing factor to disease, and cites studies that suggest links between lead and mental retardation (New York Times, Dec. 16, p. 22). Advocates for lead claimed in testimony from Robert Kehoe (an industry-sponsored scientist) that, "There is not enough lead in our environment to be a health hazard to anybody. Those who say there is are ignoring the substance of the scientific work that has been done" (Washington Post, Dec. 19, p. A14). This went back and forth, until the pendulum began to swing decidedly against the industry. In 1971, Ethyl Corp. officials claimed to be victims of a "witch hunt," (sound familiar again?) complaining that environmentalists were using "scare tactics" (chorus line) by blaming lead for the fall of the Roman Empire. By 1977, the evidence for lead's ill-effects on health was beyond doubt. Testing by public health scientists showed causation between high levels of lead in children's blood and brain damage, hypertension and learning disorders. Later, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that leaded gasoline is the greatest source of atmospheric lead pollution. In June 1980, the courts affirmed in Lead Industries Association v. EPA that EPA regulations for the phase-out of leaded gasoline could be implemented.

So industry leaders first disputed that lead in gasoline was the source of lead in the water and atmosphere (somewhat like those who later would claim that climate change is a hoax); when that proved unviable, they said, sure, but lead in the environment was not a health hazard (sure, climate change is real but not caused by human activity, a natural variation of no concern). When that proved untrue, they argued that opponents were organizing a witch hunt using scare tactics to mask the horrific economic consequences of regulating lead (environmentalists were scaring the public about climate change to advance an extreme left-wing agenda of eco-terrorism). Today you don't hear anyone arguing we should still have lead in our gasoline. Why? "Thousands of tons of lead have been removed from the air, and blood levels of lead in our children are down 70 percent. This means that millions of children will be spared the painful consequences of lead poisoning, such as permanent nerve damage, anemia or mental retardation." By 1983 we also learn that the benefits of the lead phase-out exceeded its costs by $700 million in just a few years.

Let us not forget in the face of this economic and public health success that the predictions of economic ruin and regulatory overreach were quite stark as industry tried to rally opposition to regulating lead. I have seen no apologies or admissions of error. Just silence; which is striking given the stridency of the opposition, and how incredibly wrong they were. Here are just a few examples:

• Oil industry representatives testified to EPA that the lead phase-down would cause them to lose profits, prevent them from funding future oil exploration, and make gasoline unaffordable.

• In 1970, the petroleum industry was putting out stories that removing lead from gasoline would cause everyone's car engines to erode or explode. That, in turn, would destroy the economy, all because "a bunch of pointy-headed scientists, doctors and public health officials" were spreading "chicken-little panic" about a "purely hypothetical and overblown danger."

• One lead additive manufacturer ran an ad in major newspapers in December 1973, later picked up in a Washington Post article, claiming the lead phase-down would waste one million barrels of oil a day.

• Phillips Petroleum estimated that producing unleaded gasoline would consume between 300,000 and 600,000 barrels of additional crude oil a day and require from $8 to $15 billion in refinery capital investment.

Of course none of that nonsense proved to be true; the only truth is that removing lead from gasoline caused no economic disruption, but did result in important health, environmental and economic benefits.

And so now we come to another government phaseout of a product considered by the public to be a normal part of daily life, the incandescent bulb. The first order of business is to explain the significant benefits of banning incandescent bulbs. The argument for government intervention to institute and enforce the ban is every bit as compelling as that for removing lead from gasoline.

Energy efficiency is the greatest and most obvious return on the investment away from incandescent bulbs. Two options exist, compact fluorescents (CFL) and light emitting diodes (LED); we can consider CFLs as an intermediate technology, with its own set of problems, including mercury disposal. LEDs are the wave of the future. Compared to traditional bulbs, LEDs use at least 75% less energy and last 25 times longer, usually rated at least at 100,000 hours. An LED circuit gets close to 80% efficiency, meaning 20% is lost as waste heat. Regular bulbs are the inverse; 20% efficiency, while 80% is lost as heat.

At the national level, DOE puts annual energy savings by 2030 from LED use at about 300 Tera-watt-hours (TWh), even with only moderate market infiltration. That is enough electricity to power 24 million homes every year, at an annual savings of $30 billion at today's electricity prices. That translates to nearly 180 million barrels of oil, each year, oil that we would not import from the Middle East -- one more step toward energy independence. So we can power 24 million homes simply and forgo 180 million barrels of oil every year simply by changing some light bulbs, which in the end cost less over the bulb's lifetime than incandescent bulbs. The move is a no-brainer, yet the market would not allow for this outcome because the initial purchase price (for now) is higher. Only by government regulation can we get to the obviously desirable endpoint within any reasonable time frame; and of course as LEDs get manufactured in every-greater numbers, the unit cost will go down, further underlying the validity of the phaseout policy.

Concerning personal benefits, if you use a 100 Watt incandescent bulb for one year, with an electrical cost of 10 cents/kilowatt hour, you will spend $88 on electricity to light the bulb. Of that, $70 will have been used to heat the room, all wasted energy. Instead, with an 80% efficient LED bulb, the electricity cost would be $23 per year. In fact, the cost savings would be higher because most incandescent light bulbs blow out within a year; LED bulbs can used go a decade without burning out.

Sadly, predictably, the right wing brings out all the same objections they brought to the table with the phaseout of lead. The repetitive song goes like this: there is no problem; well, if there is a problem, it is being exaggerated by the left; okay, there is a serious problem, but government has no role to play in finding a solution -- only the magic of the market can do that. They were wrong then, they are wrong now on all counts.

One prominent blog has the headline, "If energy needs to be saved, there are good ways to do it. Government product regulation is not one of them." Note the question of whether we even need to save energy. That is rather odd in itself since the idea that we need to save energy and become energy self-sufficient has been a bipartisan position since the Nixon administration. The parties split is on how to achieve the goal.

So where does the bulb phaseout fit into this debate? The phaseout has actually been in progress since 2007, when Congress passed and George Bush signed into law an energy bill that placed new efficiency standards on light bulbs. In 2012, the manufacturing of the familiar tungsten-filament 100 watt bulb was discontinued. In 2013 that ban included 75 watt bulbs. In January, the manufacturing ban was extended to 40 watt and 60 watt bulbs. All older-style bulbs can be sold until supplies run out.

Just as with the rather ridiculous and exaggerated claims about the calamities that would befall all of us if we removed lead from gasoline, we hear similar refrains about the catastrophic consequences of eliminating incandescent bulbs. And yet, just as with lead removal, the economy did not collapse as the bulb phaseout was implemented. Consumers did not starve in order to afford new bulbs. The government did not come marching in black boots into our living rooms to remove old bulbs. And just as with lead, right wing opponents ignore or deny the obvious benefits derived from the regulations, benefits that would not be forthcoming if market forces alone were brought to bear on the problem.

In spite of the significant benefits of moving away from an early-industrial- age product, even in the face of clear benefits to energy self-sufficiency and national security, even in light of the enormous environmental benefits, the right wing remains stuck in sclerotic opposition, learning nothing from their earlier failures. The Heritage Foundation loudly proclaimed that "the government's taking away your light bulbs on Jan. 1." Think how absurd this headline would be if it read, "the government's taking away the lead in your gasoline on Jan 1." The original quote will seem equally absurd in a few years' time.

Government regulations can and very often do indeed go too far; laws can overreach. Implementation and enforcement can be expensive, inefficient and intrusive. All of that is true, which means we must always be diligent and fight against government excess. But knee-jerk reactions to all government regulation, even those essential and reasonable, destroy any credibility in fighting regulations that legitimately should be resisted. Fighting against actions that clearly benefit individuals and society alike does nothing but delay what should and needs to be done. Los Angeles does not look like Beijing only because of government regulation, forcing the auto industry into adopting catalytic converters and regulating tailpipe emissions (along with regulations of the energy industry as well). I lived in southern California throughout the 1960s and 1970s, when the air was thick and tasted like metal. The air is breathable now exclusively and solely due to "excessive" government regulation. No market forces would lead to that outcome. If you are among those who believe government has no business regulating industry, then live in China for six months and see if you retain your beliefs. Traffic deaths are down significantly because the government makes you wear seat-belts in a car and helmets on a bike. You can eat food in restaurants and produce from grocery stores with confidence because those industries are regulated by government. Hot dogs contain meat instead of rat hair and feces because of government regulation. Air travel is safe because of government regulation of airline maintenance and duty cycle rules for pilots. Water is safe to drink because of government oversight and regulation. Buildings and freeways withstand earthquakes because of government regulation. The drugs you take are the safest in the world because of government regulation.

The government rightfully banned incandescent bulbs. Get over it; stop the whining, learn from the past about ridiculous opposition to reasonable regulation, and focus instead on problems of real government overreach -- you know, like starting a war based on fabricated intelligence. The move to LEDs should not be fodder for partisan politics and is only because the right opposes all regulations without thought. Time to start thinking.