In the warm glow of government wisdom, feeling a slight chill

By Jayson Jacoby March 25, 2011 12:43 pm

I’m no Luddite, but my lighting fixtures are the technological equivalent of a Model T.

Incandescence illuminates the whole of my home.

Crude filaments abound, squandering precious kilowatts with each flick of a switch.

(And with a three-year-old on the premises, there is a great deal of switch-flicking.)

My continued reliance on an ancient invention is the result of equal parts laziness and cheapness.

As to the first, although I’m aware of the compact fluorescent light (CFL) I’ve not bothered to find out, to my satisfaction, whether CFLs, which cost more but use a lot less energy and last much longer than old-fashioned bulbs, are in fact the environmental and economic saviors they’re purported to be.

One online source estimates an electricity savings of $105 per bulb over a 4fi-year period. That seems awfully high to me.

My 17-year-old house is all-electric, including its 17-year-old furnace, yet the monthly power bill rarely exceeds $175 even during winter.

As such, 23 bucks per year per bulb in savings strikes me as perhaps the product of an idealized rather than a realistic experiment.

Exaggerated boasts aside, CFLs cost only a few bucks more per bulb than incandescents, so it wouldn’t take dramatic increases in energy savings and longevity for the CFLs to at least pay for themselves.

As is typical with ostensibly good deals, though, there’s a tradeoff.

CFLs contain mercury, a nasty neurotoxin (sorry for the redundancy; anything that’s toxic to my neurons qualifies as nasty in my book). That same Web site, however, assures me that proper and safe disposal is simple.

This confidence in Americans’ ability to responsibly discard their trash contradicts what I’m hearing, though, from some other people who fret about how we’re befouling the planet.

Members of the Oregon Legislature, for instance.

They are right now mulling a bill that would ban those ubiquitous plastic grocery sacks. A key part of the case against the bags is that most of them end up blowing around in barrow pits or gagging marine life.

Which is bad, but probably not as bad as introducing a new source of mercury pollution.

I already feel a trifle unsettled whenever I eat a crappie caught in Brownlee Reservoir.

(Fortunately, given my angling acumen, this is rare.)

Proponents argue that CFLs are still better, mercury-wise, because incandescent bulbs, by requiring more energy, result in mercury-spewing power plants running overtime.

That might be true in some places.

But almost every joule that enters my house was produced by water running downhill, a decidedly mercury-free process.

(Except for the mercury already in the water, I suppose.)

In any case, because I’m not convinced that switching to CFLs will either enrich my bank account, or that it won’t poison our rivers and streams with a toxic metal, I’ve resisted the temptation to shell out a few extra dollars every time a bulb burns out.

There is nothing political, though, about my failure to convert to CFLs.

I point this out for two reasons.

First, I’d rather be accused of being a miserly sloth than admitting that I weigh the political implications of matters as banal as light bulbs.

(Besides, I’ve already admitted to being lazy and cheap.)

Second, the preference for CFLs already is a decidedly political matter in some quarters.

Congress, for instance.

In 2007 legislators passed a bill that bans the sale of incandescent bulbs starting Jan. 1, 2012.

President Bush, apparently in one of his more compassionate moments, signed the bill into law.

(Our beneficent political leaders did, though, agree to wean us gradually from our addiction rather than force us to go cold turkey: The law bans 100-watt bulbs only starting in 2012, followed by 75-watters the next year, and 60- and 40-watt bulbs in 2014. The theory, I guess, is that by 2014, having gone without the brilliance of big-watt bulbs, we’ll hardly notice the loss of the dimmer types.)

I’m not nearly as worked up about this impending bulb ban as some people are.

Myron Ebell, director of Freedom Action and a 1971 Baker High School graduate, wrote this in a press release: “The light bulb ban is an outrageous government limitation on consumer choice and intrusion into the home of every American.”

Well, the 2007 law certain qualifies as a government limitation on consumer choice.

But I’m not convinced it’s an outrageous one.

Whether or not I swap the bulbs in my home would of course have a negligible effect on the nation’s energy appetite.

But put the whole of America on a kilowatt diet, which was Congress’ intent in enacting the law, and there’s ample reason to believe we’ll look noticeably more svelte in the “after” photo than in the “before.”

The niggling question for me, though, is whether it was necessary for Congress to brandish its legislative cudgel to whip us into fighting trim.

The government, after all, has had noteworthy success in curing us of other, more directly harmful habits without resorting to such bludgeoning techniques as outright bans on products.

The percentage of Americans who smoke cigarettes plummeted from 45 percent in 1954 to about 25 percent by the turn of the century.

Legislation had something to do with the decline, certainly — restrictions on advertising, and mandated labels with graphic warnings about health hazards, in particular.

Excise taxes no doubt have contributed to the dwindling popularity of smoking as well.

Yet cigarettes remain legal, as readily available as soda pop.

And so far as I can tell, Congress, a body which rarely lacks in audacity, won’t make a serious run at banning butts any time soon.

Ultimately, I think I have more faith in Americans than our elected officials have.

Millions of us quit smoking not because the government stole our cigarettes, but because we decided we didn’t want our lungs to end up looking like a burger left too long on a barbecue grill.

And millions of us started screwing CFLs into our lamp sockets before Congress got around to deciding which bulbs we ought to be allowed to use.

(Frankly, I’d be more appreciative if an elected official, rather than choosing my bulbs, would help out when I have to replace the one in my hallway overhead fixture. The glass dome is a regular bear to twist back into place. The ceiling is high there, too, and I’m afraid one day I’ll take a painful fall from the stool I always use for the job.)

I’m sure I’ll make the change eventually too, once I overcome my instinctive inertia.

(For one thing, I won’t have to climb up on that stool as often.)

Yet if CFLs are the miracle that Congress and President Bush apparently think they are, then I’m confident that the lights, even lacking the presidential seal of approval, will eventually prevail in that most competitive of arenas, the free market.

We Americans love our bargains, after all.

Heck, even fast-food restaurants have “value menus.”

What we don’t much cotton to is the government insinuating itself so intimately into our lives that the most prosaic of acts — changing a light bulb, that fixture of a thousand jokes — could carry criminal ramifications.

If I have to venture into the dangers of the black market, I’d better get something more useful out of the trip than a dim glow in the corner of a room.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.