Lights out for a dim bulb issue

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    (Light bulb image courtesy of

    Remember when the incandescent light bulb was a cause celebre on the Republican right? Circa 2011, conservatives like Michelle Bachmann ranted that the “socialists” were intent on dictating our consumer choices, that Big Brother was under our lampshades, forcing us to buy energy-efficient alternatives to the old energy-wasting bulbs — and, indeed, banishing those Thomas Edison devices from the shelves.

    Well, guess what: History was made on Jan. 1. Under federal law, it’s now illegal to manufacture or import the traditional 40-watt and 60-watt bulbs (the higher wattage bulbs have already been phased out), all in the name of much greater energy efficiency. Most Americans are quietly gravitating to the compact fluorescents, the halogens, and the LEDs – energy-savers that will dramatically lower our electric bills. Life goes on.

    In other words, the right-wingers’ nightmare has actually become reality. But are they raging anew, throwing themselves into the path of progress? Nope. They greeted the Jan. 1 milestone not with a rhetorical bang, but with a whimper. Another faux-crusade has bitten the dust.

    Granted, a few dim bulbs continue to flicker. Texas Republican congressman Joe Barton (we can always rely on Texas) fumed the other day that the ban on traditional incandescents is “a blatant case of government interference and overregulation.” A GOP strategist emails Politico to complain that the ban is a classic case of “government gone crazy.” A right-wing website mockingly headlines, “If you like your light bulb, you can’t keep your light bulb.”

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    Those new remarks harken back to the old rhetoric, like when Mitt Romney assailed Obama’s regime for banning “Thomas Edison’s light bulb,” and Rand Paul said, “You can’t go around your house without being told what to buy,” and Bachmann said, “The government has no business telling an individual what kind of light bulb to buy,” and Glenn Beck said he would fire employes who dared to buy the new-fangled energy-efficient models. And it wasn’t just words, either. House Republicans voted several times to block enforcement of the law or defund its rules (the usual empty gestures, a la voting to repeal Obamacare).

    But what we mostly hear today is nothing. It’s lights out for the rhetoric that routinely sparked Pavllovian applause at conservative fundraisers. It’s great when sweet reason wins.

    It was always hilarious to hear the Republican right try to pin the law on Obama. In reality, the Energy Independence and Security Act was a bipartisan triumph. It was signed in 2007 by that renowned socialist, George W. Bush. It passed the upper chamber with the support of 39 Republican senators. And it has sparked technological innovation in the private sector — the kind of thing that conservatives supposedly revere.

    The major manufacturers, including General Electric and Philips, have been busy rolling out the various energy-efficient alternatives, and consumers were already moving that way. As far back as 2008, compact fluorescents alone were capturing 20 percent of the market. Yeah, the new products are more expensive than the old Edison bulbs, but they yield long-term savings. As energy experts frequently point out, they last a lot longer than the old bulbs; and because they use a lot less energy, Americans may save as much as $13 billion annually in electricity bills.

    So it’s bye bye to another dim bulb issue. The conservative rhetoric — about how government was trying to dictate our behavior — was tiresome because it was so familiar. For instance: Back in the ’70s, when the feds started to mandate seat belts, and phase out the manufacture of beltless cars, conservatives said government had no right to “take the risk out of life” (that was James Buckley, brother of iconic William F.). But the feds proceeded to deny Americans the right to be roadkill, and between 1975 and 2001, belts reportedly saved 147,000 lives. Today, nobody complains on the stump that belts curb our car freedom.

    Rest assured, however, that conservatives will retool the rhetoric in some new bid to turn back the clock, because going to bat for Thomas Edison was clearly a failure. In fact, Edison’s great grandson is glad the the conservatives have failed. Over to you, David Edward Edison Sloane:

    “Edison’s concern after the turn of the last century was with pollution and nonrenewable resources, not with freezing technological change at the level of 1879…Let’s invent the future. He would have embraced new tough standards as a way to move our antiquated energy policies forward, helping people save money when they most need it, and reducing carbon pollution that puts our future at risk…(Let’s) help America reclaim its place as a leader in technology, invention, and entrepreneurialism. That’s Edisonian.”


    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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