by Marc Jampole
An article by Claudia Rosett titled “First, they came for our 100-watt bulbs” making the rounds of right-wing media this week proposes that a new engineering standard is really an encroachment on our basic rights. She bemoans the loss of freedom represented by the federal government mandate to gradually phase out incandescent light bulbs, starting with 100-watt bulbs on New Year’s Day.
Here is a sample of Rosett’s impassioned defense of our freedom to use an obsolete, energy-draining technology: “For decades, America has been the world’s beacon of freedom. 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.”
Later on, Rosett applies the negative label “nanny state,” to the government’s quite rational and easy-to-understand program to phase in the new, more energy-efficient bulbs over a period of several years. She then proceeds to use the rhetorical device called reduction ad absurdum by taking government interference to save energy to some imaginary absurd ends, such as banning coffee and toast for breakfast and issuing draconian quotas regarding the thermostat temperature at home.
I’m surprised that Rosett isn’t demanding that we reinstall gas lamps in our cities and drop the speed limit to 15 so we don’t scare the horses on the road.
What Rosett fails to comprehend is that one function of all governments since the Sumerians and Shang Chinese has been to set standards: weights, measures, equivalencies and building specifications. Engineers set the standards and the first thing the engineer asks is, “What do you care about?” Thus, uniformity has always been important is establishing standards, so that companies and consumers in all parts of the country would have confidence that 100 watts meant the same thing no matter what brand they buy. Be it building products, manufacturing parts, processed food or consumer appliances, safety has been an issue in standards for many a century.
With the related challenges of global warming and resource shortages, it makes sense for the government to ask engineers to tweak the standards for what is essentially a building part.
Rosett’s freedom argument is a ruse: What Rosett really dislikes is that the government has begun to include energy efficiency in the latest engineering standards. I don’t know it for a fact, but I suspect that the issue of light bulbs is less important to her than the fear that the slippery slope will lead to a government-imposed radical re-engineering of electricity generating plants and automobiles.
What‘s most laughable is that Rosett accuses the federal government of the cronyism that she herself is practicing by writing an article condemning the phasing out of incandescent light bulbs as “designed to enrich manufacturers who prefer to sell pricier light bulbs that a lot of Americans, if free to choose, prefer not to buy.” As it turns out, Rosett, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is currently in residence at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a neo-con policy organization that mostly works on security and terrorism issues. In fact, Rosett’s article about freedom is really meant to ward off environmental regulation, one of the many bête noirs of Bill Kristol, Joseph Lieberman, and the rest of the neo-cons.
No matter what one thinks about global warming, no sensible person can deny that by definition there is a future shortage of oil, natural gas and coal as soon as you start pulling these finite resources out of the ground in great quantities. Anything we can do to save energy extends the supply of oil, natural gas and coal. It only makes sense that as a matter of national security, the government — democratically elected — set energy efficiency standards for parts and products.
The case of setting a new standard that makes incandescent light bulbs obsolete has nothing to do with freedom. The government is not banning a book, not fining a television station for a singer’s “wardrobe mishap.” It’s not even limiting where sex offenders can live, a curtailment of individual freedom that many applaud.
All we’re talking about is an improvement in the specifications for a building product that consumers also buy to help meet an important public policy goal.
Consider Rosett’s article another neo-con con job.
Marc Jampole is a poet and writer who runs Jampole Communications, a public relations and communications firm in Pittsburgh. Click here to read his “OpEdge” blog.