Friday, December 30, 2011

Too Bad the Name "Illuminati" is Already Taken

Our household transitioned to Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) light bulbs years ago. We did it over time, replacing our incandescent bulbs as they burned out. At this point, the only remaining incandescents in the house are those "makeup bulbs" in the significant other's vanity lamp.

Why did we change over? Because the CFLs were advertised -- truthfully, so far as I can tell -- as longer-lasting and more efficient, such that they more than cover the higher cost. My recollection is that in four years or so, we've had one CFL "burn out" (and a couple get broken, but incandescents would have broken in similar situations too). We're happy with the quality of light, I don't have to climb around changing bulbs as often, and the effect on our electric bill, if relatively small, has at least been in the right direction.

Personally, I think CFLs, LEDs, etc. are the bee's knees. But let's get one thing straight: The "incandescent light bulb ban," intended to make you use them, has little or nothing to do with energy efficiency. It's about money and it's about using government regulation to strangle competition.

Here's how it works:

Big light bulb players (General Electric, Phillips, Osram Sylvania) develop and patent CFL technologies, and put big money into facilities to mass produce them. Then they milk what money they can out of their patent-protected monopolies.

But it turns out to not be as much as they'd have liked -- most people would still rather spend 50 cents on a 100-watt incandescent bulb than three bucks on a 26-watt CFL. And there are plenty of smaller companies still making those cheaper bulbs. When the patents expire, instead of rushing to produce CFLs too, those smaller companies just keep cranking out those cheap incandescents. And the big guys keep taking it in the shorts, or at least not making nearly as much money as they believe they're entitled to make.

Solution? "Hey, we spent bazillions of dollars developing and implementing this technology that not everybody wants ... let's spend a little lobbying forcing them to use it ... and while we're at it, let's force those smaller firms to either spend bazillions of dollars implementing it as well or get out of the light bulb business, too."

In a real free market, CFLs, LED bulbs, etc., would -- in my opinion -- have eventually triumphed over the incandescent bulb (with some niche/aesthetic exceptions) by getting ever cheaper and ever more efficient. But why continue to compete and innovate when you can just drag a few papers sacks full of cash down K Street and get your competition outlawed?

Some people refer to this as "light bulb socialism." I call it "actually existing capitalism."

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