Ross Douthat and Megan McArdle have recently commented on regulations that will likely require (via the back door of efficiency standards) that America convert from conventional incandescent light bulbs to CFLs (fluorescent lights). The most frequently cited justification is that they will reduce energy “waste”, and therefore, among other things, reduce global warming. The bad parts: CFL bulbs will make your home as pleasantly lit as Kmart, and if one breaks it will dump some mercury in your house that “won’t be a problem if simple precautions are taken”.
What’s so funny about this is that CFL proponents (or more precisely, proponents of laws that would make it illegal for you to use incandescent bulbs in your house) often refer to “inefficient incandescent technology that has barely changed since the invention of the tungsten filament nearly a century ago.” This profoundly misunderstands technology. The best technologies last hundreds or thousands of years, and become so much a part of the built environment that we don’t even think of them as technologies anymore: books, stone houses, woven shirts, fire. The fact that incandescent bulbs have lasted as long as they have and that a law is required to make people give them up probably indicates that it is a great technology.
People like the kind of light that these bulbs give off. Why focus on just this technology that allows the aesthetic pleasure of pleasant light, but is “inefficient” because we get the same number of lumens with fewer units of CO2 emissions from another technology. Why not pass a law that all new or repainted buildings – homes, offices, everything – must be painted white? It would increase the albedo of the Earth and thereby reduce AGW with certainty, in spite of no loss of the functional efficiency of buildings. And what about this desire for wool, silk and cotton clothes? Shouldn’t we pass a law making it illegal to wear anything not made of petrochemical products like rayon and polyester, if we determine that the net AGW impacts of more animals is greater that the impacts of greater refinery utilization? One way or another, of course, all clothes should have to be white. We ought to establish a
sumptuary efficiency commissariat to evaluate many such recommendations.
Of course we won’t have any of these ideas passed into law because
they will not make GE, Sylvania and Philips a ton of money by writing higher-margin products that align with their global standards into law we are sensible, and therefore slippery slope arguments are sophomoric.
This highlights the problem with Megan McArdle’s point that we just need a carbon tax to avoid all this rent-seeking. As I have written about at tedious length, creating the tax itself will require huge side-deals. Want evidence of that? All three remaining plausible presidential candidates propose aggressive emissions limitations. All three propose to price carbon using cap-and-trade rather than a tax. Why is that? Because, in spite of being enormously less efficient, it will be easier to pass politically. And the horse trading hasn’t even begun.