In the introduction to Science Left Behind, I wrote about a bizarre effort by (think Tea Party, but of the left) progressives who helped gain control of Congress in the 2006 election to make good on their promises to Make America Green - and how in order to do so, they latched onto every pseudoscientific fairy tale they could, like replacing spoons in the Congressonal cafeteria with the kind made from corn. 

Because they only listened to environmental claims, they didn't ask in advance whether the spoons melted in hot soup and the knives broke, meaning staffers were using far more. They instead insisted they were better for the environment because they were compostable. And they were compostable, if you hauled them to Maryland in giant emissions belching trucks where special furnaces had to melt it down before it went into a landfill.

Actual benefit to the environment? None, it was an expensive boondoggle.

Luckily for Congressional staffers, Democrats lost control of the House in January of 2011 and the first order of business for the harried Pennsylvania Democrat in charge of House logistics was asking the Republican who was taking over his position to kill that particular 'Green The Capitol' program. The Republican, my Congressman Dan Lungren, did it, because Republicans are suckers with an ideology fixation and simply saw a waste of money that helped no one and annoyed all of Congress.  Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats immediately declared that he was causing cancer and killing the environment and he lost his next re-election campaign.

See what I mean? Suckers. You can't have Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats saying you replaced spoons and therefore caused cancer in California and still get re-elected. Yet Republicans fell right into their trap.

Unfortunately for us all, unlike utensils in the Congressional cafeteria, actual laws require votes in both Houses and can't be a unilateral party decision. And Democrats did not lose the Senate so their bizarre War On Light which also began during that period hasn't been overturned.

The War On Light? Yes, someone somewhere decided that light bulbs were the big problem in climate change. As of January 1st the United States can no longer manufacture or import incandescent bulbs.

Were they wrong in that law? Sure, but they got elected and that is how democracy works. Plus, no one expects members of Congress to learn everything, so they learned what well-paid environmental lobbyists wanted them to learn about light bulbs. Incandescent light bulbs are inefficient compared to CFLs and LEDs. They waste energy in the form of heat. They're also cheap. Banning cheap light bulbs and mandating expensive replacements is a huge win for giant corporations and the administration constantly touts its pro-business stance, so that makes sense - and it hurts poor people, which progressives always like. 

But how critical was the light bulb problem in the big environmental picture? Was it another example of plastic spoons in a cafeteria? 

Well, we'll have to see but for now it looks bad. In reality, and environmentalists don't like to admit this, Americans are already pretty terrific about energy conservation, especially given that we have it in quantity and at reasonably low cost. The conservation-minded includes those global warming-denying Republicans, who conserve just as much as environmentally-friendly Democrats. The average American home uses 903 kilowatthours per month, a big drop from the 950 when Science Left Behind was being written in 2011 - the upside to a lingering terrible economy is people can no longer afford to buy big houses, I suppose - but only 13 percent of that usage is lighting. CFLs are 5-10X as expensive as incandescents right now, and LEDs will run you an even higher $10-20, in return for using 20 percent less electricity. CFLs last longer and LEDs longer still, we are told, so even expensive LEDs will pay for themselves nicely over 20 years, but how many people expect to be in their house for 20 years?  And how valid are those 'last longer' numbers? (2) 

Poor people do not want to have to sacrifice food today for a light bulb that will pay for itself 10 years from now.

And then there's the baby chicks.

I mentioned that incandescent bulbs lose a lot of their energy in heat - not putting off heat is why CFLs can use 20 percent less electricity (and up.) It was no secret in the US that incandescents were banned and not a secret in Canada either. It just wasn't news because corporations were not complaining. Other than token resistance at the time, they haven't objected - they just got a government windfall handed to them. If you can have a 10% profit margin on a mandated $5-20 product instead of a 10% margin on an optional $.70 product, you sell the expensive product. 

Thanks for giving us global warming, baby chicks. Credit and link: CBC News

So Ottawa’s Wild Bird Care Centre says they were caught off-guard by the ban in Canada. They use incandescent bulbs precisely because they give off some heat - and they're cheap. Light bulbs keep injured and recovering birds warm and it does so in a really inexpensive way. You want to make incubators a lot less environmentally friendly and far more expensive? Replace light bulbs with heating elements.

So if you are feeling first world guilt because you still have incandescent bulbs in the closet, you now know where to donate them. 

We know who is hurt by bans on light bulbs - poor people and baby chicks. So who is helped, besides giant corporations? It's hard to say because the whole rationale is confusing to people who don't work in Washington, D.C. Government banned the old light bulbs and then subsidized the new replacement bulbs. The logic was that if they ban what they dislike and subsidize what they like, the free-market - which they hate, it  since it gave us the cheap light bulbs they just banned - will somehow make the expensive mandated and subsidized bulbs cheap.  But didn't capitalism cause the problem in the first place? That is why government had to step in. Now they want capitalism to fix it?

If any of that makes economic sense to you, you could be the next Paul Krugman.


(1)  Canada still leads the world in electricity usage, both in average and per capita. I wasn't seriously blaming the baby chicks for that.

(2) Well, no, at least not any time soon. For starters, laboratory ratings don't have to account for real-world conditions. CFL bulbs burn out much faster if you turn them on and off when you leave and enter rooms, like all of us have been taught by awareness campaigns to do, since probably the day we were born. And LEDs overheat if they are not well-ventilated, which means not in your lamp. So if you are that 1 in 10 who never shuts off lights like you are supposed to, CFLs will be great. Otherwise, the "10 year" claim is going to be just that.