Confessions of a Light Bulb Addict

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Please don’t think this is easy for me. I’m one of those crazed Americans who can’t walk into Home Depot, Target or my local grocery store right now without wanting to grab one of those king-sized shopping carts and stuff it to the gunwales with 100-watt incandescent light bulbs.

Maybe it’s the sheer thrill of buying bulbs that in just over a month, as of Jan. 1, 2012, will be banned for sale in America. What fun, in this incandescent twilight, to acquire legally what the federal government will soon treat as contraband, should it appear in any American marketplace. Or maybe it’s that gut sense that with the dollar teetering toward an abyss of unfathomable and inflationary government spending, those beloved old 100 watt bulbs will at least provide a decent store of value, even if all I do is use them to read by for the rest of my life – meticulously taking care never to violate federal law by offering even a single bulb for sale to some fellow citizen willing to pay for it.

Or, just possibly, this urge to stockpile incandescents is the product of simmering outrage. For decades, I have written about America as the world’s beacon of freedom, which it has been. Yet here we are, wards of the nanny state, with politicians dictating that even that prime symbol of American ingenuity, Thomas Edison’s incandescent light bulb, shall be regulated into oblivion. All this has been ably exposed as an act of crony capitalism, designed to enrich manufacturers who prefer to sell pricier light bulbs that a lot of Americans, if free to choose, prefer not to buy. And the actual mechanics of this ban have been greatly blurred, Washington-style, by framing this fix not as an outright prohibition, but merely as a phase-out of light bulbs that do not meet standards set by Washington in the name of “energy efficiency.” First the 100-watt incandescents vanish from the shelves. Then the 75-watt, the 60-watt and 40-watt. It is, in its way, a bipartisan dimming of choice, tacked onto an energy bill signed into law in 2007 by President George W. Bush, and –despite an attempt at repeal this past July – upheld by Democrats in Congress under President Barack Obama.

Americans being an enterprising band, it is of course possible that the country will develop bootleg markets in incandescents. Though I would recommend against such law-breaking. The federal government may not have control of America’s borders, but in Washington such stuff as border security can’t hold a candle to having control of America’s light bulbs. Presumably, federal authorities will now be spending U.S. tax dollars (excuse me – “creating jobs”) to deploy light bulb cops. In years ahead, if you haven’t amassed a private stash of the old incandescents, and find yourself yearning for their comfortable glow after the sun goes down, you may have to head overseas and comb the developing world for someplace where people are still free to choose what bulbs they sell and buy.

But I promised you the confessions of a light bulb addict, and so far I have mainly been talking about the drawbacks of the incandescent ban. So here begins the real confession. Never mind the crony capitalism, or the latest news of Climategate 2.0, or the simple ornery pleasure of exercising free will to choose how I individually will spend my scarce resources to light the night. I surrender. I give in. The federal government says this is for my own good. Washington can choose my ideal energy efficiency tradeoffs much better than I can do it for myself.

However, if the government is to be in charge of my tradeoffs, I must protest that Washington has not gone nearly far enough. There is so much more that could be done to ensure my energy efficiency. My passion for 100-watt incandescents is just the beginning of my vices. My entire day is one long set of tradeoffs that involve balancing what I would like against what I can afford, and almost all of it entails, in one way or another, the consumption of energy. I make coffee in the morning, though it would be more energy efficient to drink only water. I use up energy toasting bread, though I don’t really have to. When I open a can of soup, I heat it up, though we all know it is precooked and just as nutritious cold and straight out of the can. I heat my home to a temperature at which I can comfortably take my coat off indoors in the winter – though I know, from experience working in Russia 15 years ago, that this is not strictly necessary. I use hot water daily, though ditto the 1990?s Russian experience, I am well aware that this is not essential to survival. Some days I drive miles, not just for work, but for such frivolous pleasures as seeing friends – when, especially if ordered to do so by law, we could of course restrict ourselves to teleconferencing. Worse, in service of such idiosyncratic individual pleasures as visiting friends and family, I sometimes take airplanes.

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