Thursday, January 9, 2014

Let There Be Light Freedom

Regulation is one of those words that have changed through misuse. At the time of the writing of the Constitution, it meant “to allow to be regular, to be expected.” That was what it meant in reference to a well-regulated militia and regulating commerce between the states.
Now it means something more like “rules imposed through government coercion.” I’m against that. I grow more against it with further examination. Even well-meaning regulations (and aren’t they all?) that do not cross my personal choice tend to decay overall freedom (for example, because I don’t smoke, I am not much affected by regulations against smoking).
Here are the facts about today’s regulations:
·         They exceed the proper role of government.
·         Everything that exceeds the proper role of government causes negative, unforeseen consequences.
·         The negative consequences of government regulation almost always result in the exact opposite of the stated purposes of the regulation.
So, whatever your opinion about the utility and value of certain types of light bulbs, government coercion is wrong.
I’m mentioning this now, because January 1, 2014, marked the latest (final?) phase in the imposition of the light bulb control regulation that was signed into law in 2007. You may or may not have already realized you can no longer buy incandescent bulbs 75 watts or larger. The 1-1-2014 phase now includes 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs, the ones you’re most likely to be using around your home.
Soon to be anachronistic incandescent bulb
photo by James Bowe
Technically, you as a consumer are not breaking any laws by buying or using the banned bulbs. So if you Google one of those “myths about light bulbs” articles, you will be told that’s just overreaction by ranting bloggers such as myself. However, they are stopping the manufacture and importation of the banned bulbs. So, you can buy still buy them—as long as the supply lasts, or for about six more months, according to Home Depot, which stockpiled supply more than most. But once the supply runs out, the de facto result is that you as a consumer no longer have the option to buy the cheap, incandescent bulbs you’ve been using all your life.
There are alternatives—expensive ones, but possibly cost-effective, if the bulbs last longer and use less energy. That’s the stated purpose. (To those who accuse me of being a ranting blogger, I would like to calmly point out that the government’s stated purpose includes the insistence that my personal use of incandescent bulbs has a direct effect on the temperature of the planet and the viability of various faraway species like polar bears, whose numbers are climbing. Just saying.)
It doesn’t matter whether alternatives are superior. What matters is—it is not the government’s prerogative to make my consumer choices for me. The light bulb legislation is a classic case study.
Incandescent bulbs are cheap, reliable, and useful. They create a warm glow, and pleasant color. But they are not particularly efficient. The frequently stated percentage is that 90% of the energy is wasted while the useful 10% creates light. Wasted is a relative term, however. The other 90% creates mostly heat. If you had an Easy-Bake Oven as a kid (I did), you can see that was a good thing. Light bulb heat is also useful in incubators for hatching chicks and for some indoor gardening. It’s not a terrible thing in a home otherwise requiring energy for heat.
Are those uses significant enough to override the government mandate? Yes, actually.
Ask the question another way: Is the government’s purpose for controlling purchasing decisions important enough to override valid consumer needs/demands? There shouldn’t have to be a weighing on a scale. As soon as something is placed on the consumer demand side, it outweighs the invalid government purpose—unless the government purpose is rationally recognized as assuring protection of our rights to life, liberty, and property.
I’m trying to connect the dots for government’s role in deciding which current science to honor as sacrosanct enough to require sacrifices from the citizenry. I can’t do it. (Maybe especially when it’s been 23 degrees this week—in subtropical Houston! I know that doesn’t qualify for sympathy from the rest of you suffering from what’s being called the “polar vortex.”)
What I see is that, compared to me, government is really bad at making decisions about what I should purchase. I’m all for innovations, some of which we’re seeing with LED and halogen bulbs. (Here is a good comparison article.) Some of these are still very expensive, but the market, not government coercion, is the best path to innovation and affordability. And way too much of the government coercion has steered us toward compact fluorescent bulbs.
Here’s what I have against fluorescent light bulbs:
·        They’re ugly. The twisty, neon-looking knot is not esthetically pleasing. The light emitted is unpleasant—that’s one of the reasons I hate shopping, because everything looks ugly when the lighting makes your skin look a harsh greenish-purple. I can avoid shopping in fluorescent-lit department stores most of the time, but I can’t avoid my home. I don’t want that unpleasantness surrounding me in my nesting place.

·        They hum. The hum isn’t noticeable to everyone, but it’s enough to be distracting—especially when constant—with some highly sensitive individuals. It’s enough to cause distraction for young kids in schools, interfering with their learning. (Sometimes they get misdiagnosed as ADD and get medicated, when all they really needed was separation from the ugly humming lights.) In adults the hum leads to migraines. The humming is worse if you try to use a dimmer switch. With improved technology, you can now mitigate the dimmer switch hum—if you replace your switch and pay a lot more for the bulbs.

·        They’re expensive. Supposedly they last longer. Unless they’re not upright. Hmm. I have a couple of lamps that use upright bulbs; all the rest of the bulbs in my house are horizontal or slanted downward from ceiling fixtures. Even the porch light, which conceivably could tolerate a squiggly fluorescent bulb, is upside down. So, for me, the costs would not be mitigated by longer lasting bulbs.
But here is the big, main problem: they are dangerous hazardous waste when broken. Sometimes the argument is about how small the effect of mercury would be in the environment in total, compared to the current mercury production from coal-based electricity use. But my concern is about the inevitable breakage in my home. I couldn’t count the number of incandescent bulbs we’ve broken over the years. There was a time, when the boys used to play full-court basketball in our 8-foot-high family room, and the light fixtures were a constant casualty. Cleaning up an incandescent bulb is a relatively small thing: pick up the large glass pieces, vacuum and/or wipe up the rest. Done.
Broken CFL
photo from
Compare the clean-up instructions for fluorescents (you can read the actual government instructions here; my abbreviated and only slightly embellished version is below):
1.      Evacuate all living beings, except yourself, whom you have self-appointed as expendable.
2.      Open windows and doors, and then evacuate yourself for 5-10 minutes.
3.      On your way out, shut off central air system. Leave it off for several hours.
4.      While you’re out of the contaminated area, collect the following supplies (which hopefully are not located in the contaminated area):
a.       Cardstock, duck tape, wet wipes, jar with lid or Ziploc bag in which to seal hazardous waste.
b.      Hazmat suit including disposable gloves.
5.      Remove all traces of debris, using your listed supplies, and seal debris and clean-up supplies in container that you will transport to containment facility, so it doesn’t continue to contaminate your home with mercury vapor.
6.      If area is carpeted, follow the clean-up procedure by vacuuming, carefully, with windows still open, and immediately dispose of vacuum cleaner bag as hazardous waste. Follow this procedure (including turning off air system, opening windows, and disposing of hazardous waste vacuum cleaner bag) when vacuuming this area over the next several months.
So, let me explain about Houston. No sane person opens the windows and turns off the air between April and November (pretty much never during the other months either). The humidity is overpowering; a typical day is over 90% humidity. It’s much cheaper to maintain indoor temperature and humidity than to spend hours overtaxing the system to recover non-liquid air. So a single broken bulb is going to wipe out the annual energy savings of the stupid bulbs. (Not to mention that a single presidential vacation easily wipes out the savings of the bulb switchover for a typical small city.)
And apparently the government, so concerned about my safety that it can’t allow me to use incandescent bulbs that might contribute in some incalculable way to the fragility of the planet, is perfectly fine with my being forced to use mercury vapor in my home that I must clean up myself following inevitable breakage—just follow the easy clean-up steps and then simply plan to die early.
We can count on government to make personal consumer choices badly. So, while this law is headache-inducing on that level, what is more difficult to understand is how we—the American people, with liberties guaranteed in our Constitution—have elected officials who pushed this through in the first place and then failed to repeal it before it took effect.
Failing a full repeal, I request (demand) a personal exemption.

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