Incandescent Light Bulbs Stink (and Other Hard Truths)

An incandescent bulb (Lisi Niesner/Reuters)

Don’t take pride in inefficient appliances.

The other day, one of the obnoxious little incandescent light bulbs in my bathroom went out. Every time I run out of the damn things, I have to take an old one to the store with me to find a match or spend 20 minutes hunting around online to figure out exactly what kind they are. I took the latter route this time; turns out the shot bulb had a “globe” shape with a “candelabra” base.

This kind of bulb, as it happens, is currently caught up in a dispute over changing environmental standards. So while most people would have ordered some new bulbs and gotten on with their day, I got to thinking about how we regulate the various resource-sucking appliances around our homes.

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Back when the government banned incandescent light bulbs — forcing us to use those awful swirly things for a while before the far-superior LEDs came around — it exempted goofy-shaped bulbs like the ones in my bathroom. Indeed, that fixture is the only one in the house that still has incandescents in it, because it loses a bulb only once a year or so, and in the past I had trouble finding reasonably priced, dimmable LEDs in the right size. But as new options are gradually becoming available, including the LED six-pack I ended up buying this week, the Obama administration had planned to extend the ban to new light-bulb types, effective in 2020.

President Trump is basically canceling that expansion of the ban, and some lefty activist groups might sue. (Stop me if you’ve heard this story before.) I support Trump’s move. I prefer to let market forces, not regulation, drive changes in what products are available. But I’m also frustrated by the conservative rhetoric in these debates, which frequently takes the form of outright defense of wasteful products.

So I’ll come out and say it: Incandescent light bulbs suck. We shouldn’t ban them, but no one should use them voluntarily, either. Their sole purpose is to emit light, but 90 percent of the energy they use creates heat.

When you replace an incandescent bulb with an LED, the electricity savings can pay for the bulb in a matter of months. Running an incandescent 60-watt bulb for five hours a day costs more than $10 over the course of a year, and LEDs cut that price tag by about 85 percent. Lesser-used bulbs will take longer to pay for themselves, but they still will, many times over, before they burn out. If you’re taking pride in using incandescent bulbs, you’re taking pride in losing money and harming the environment at the same time.

The same dynamic can be seen in debates over all sorts of other technological advances that improve the efficiency of a product, increasing its up-front purchase price and sometimes making it marginally less effective, but saving consumers money in the not-so-long run. Rather than just saying people should be allowed to waste their own money on the less-efficient, older version of the product if they want, many on the right actually defend that version as superior. (See the furor over whether the one-hour “quick” cycles on modern dishwashers are effective on heavily soiled dishes, and whether we need to loosen standards so these contraptions can hose our plates down with maximum speed and aggression: Make dishwashers great again!)

And you know what? Even regarding that libertarian point that people should be allowed to waste their own money, which I wholeheartedly endorse, two big concessions are in order.

First, when you use electricity, you’re not just driving up your own electricity bill. You’re also harming the environment, because you’re requiring power plants to make more power and emit more carbon. Similar problems attend to other resources like water.

Second, people really do make a lot of dumb and short-sighted decisions. Some will save money in the short run even if over time a product that burns less energy would save more. Others don’t even pay attention to how much a product will cost them to operate, focusing only on the initial price tag. Sometimes, in other words, paternalism can work in a certain sense, whether those of us with libertarian inclinations like it or not.

The way to address these problems is not, in my view, to ban specific inefficient products. Instead, you could address climate-change externalities through a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which would make sure that people who use incandescent bulbs pay to offset the harm they’re causing while still allowing them to use incandescents if they want. Such a policy would also avoid targeting small aspects of our energy consumption (lighting is just 6 percent of residential electricity use) and hit everything that emits carbon equally, so we’re not eliminating 60-watt bulbs while ignoring my brain-rotting, 150-watt PlayStation 4.

Similarly, if we want to make sure people are fully aware of how much money they’re wasting, we can require bigger and more prominent warnings about annual energy costs on products like light bulbs, rather than banning the ones we don’t like. We could also bake some of the carbon costs into the price of the bulb itself.

But I have to admit it’s not completely crazy to see all this the other way around: If we’re not, realistically, going to have a carbon tax in the foreseeable future, one can argue that we should regulate energy use in other ways instead — and that regulations that help the environment while saving consumers money are the least objectionable way to do this.

In the end, I’d prefer to have the freedom to get whatever light bulbs I want. But no one should pretend it actually makes sense to buy an obsolete product that wastes your money every time you turn it on — and needlessly damages the atmosphere to boot.

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