Two hundred and thirty six years ago, in January 1776, Thomas Paine published Common Sense, the wildly popular pamphlet that made the case for American freedom and helped to spark a revolution.
This year, the Tea Party hopes to turn the 2012 elections into a fight for American freedom. Their first salvo –the electric light bulb. Last month, they threatened to shut down the government unless new energy efficiency standards for light bulbs were delayed. They didn't delay the standards but they succeeded in delaying their implementation. The final budget deal prohibits the Department of Energy from spending any funds on the new rules.
In 2007 Congress passed The Energy Independence and Security Act that included a provision authored by Republican Congressman Fred Upton giving light bulb manufacturers until 2012 to produce light bulbs that used 25% less energy than old-fashioned, energy wasting incandescent bulbs. Upton’s press release stated that “Current incandescent bulbs on store shelves are obsolete and highly inefficient—only 10% of the energy consumed by each bulb is for light with 90% wasted on unnecessary heat. Today's incandescent bulbs employ the same technology as the bulbs Thomas Edison first created over 120 years ago.” The bill passed in a lopsided 319-100 vote and the support of 49% of the Republicans who voted.
(Today, Edison, one of history’s most prolific inventors with nearly 1,100 patents, would be rolling over in his grave at GOP opposition to progress.)
President Bush called the bill “a major step toward reducing our dependence on oil, confronting global climate change, expanding the production of renewable fuels and giving future generations of our country a nation that is stronger, cleaner and more secure.” He also noted that the light bulb standards were similar to his executive order that had required federal agencies to “lead by example in efficiency and renewable energy use.”
Since lighting accounts for 30% of all electricity use, the new standard. would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by millions of tons. And we’d all breathe a little easier. Electricity generated to power our lighting threatens us all. Producing more electricity creates more pollution. More pollution creates more illness – asthma, cancer, heart disease - and adds greenhouse gases (many conservatives don’t believe humans are responsible for global warming but they must believe toxic chemicals cause cancer). So, almost every time each one of us turns on light in our homes, something is burning to keep it lit. More than 70% of the time our electricity comes from burning coal, oil or natural gas and another 20% comes from nuclear fission reactions.
The incandescent light bulb is partly responsible, then, for the pollution that comes from power plants. And that pollution contains mercury, fine particulate matter that causes asthma and other toxic gases such as arsenic, lead and cadmium, spewed through smokestacks. Studies show that eight percent of women of child-bearing age in this country have mercury levels in their blood that could cause lower IQ in their children. Using more efficient light bulbs is one thing we can all do to reduce energy use, and thus pollution that harms us all.
But after the GOP took control of the House of Representatives in the November 2010 elections, Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh attacked Rep. Upton as a “nanny state socialist” for authoring the efficiency measure. Upton did an about-face and promised, "If I become chairman [of the House Energy and Commerce Committee], we'll be reexamining the light bulb issue, no problem.”
Major bulb manufacturers like General Electric, Philips and Osram Sylvania, lobbied unsuccessfully to keep the standards. Knowing that the new standards were nearing, the bulb makers created more efficient, brighter, compact fluorescent light bulbs that brighten immediately. (Older versions annoyingly brightened gradually.) The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) – no friend of environmental regulations (here, here and here) – argued that GOP for a consistent set of rules and accused the GOP of creating more uncertainty for the industry.
The light bulb battle isn’t about dollars and cents, it’s the latest talking point designed to stir up the GOP right wing base about “big government” limiting Americans’ freedom by allegedly limiting their consumer choices. But the GOP and Tea Party won’t acknowledge that freedoms have limits – especially when our actions harm others. Speed limits prevent reckless driving that endangers other motorists or pedestrians; smoking bans protect non-smokers (and children) from cancer-causing second-hand smoke; we aren’t allowed to throw our trash on the street; businesses can’t create dangerous workplaces that injure or kill workers.
Tea Party conservatives branded the light bulb rules as just another big government intrusion in our lives. It’s “them” telling “us” what to do; how to live; what we can buy; what we can’t buy.
Michele Bachman introduced the Light Blub Freedom of Choice Act last year to repeal the new standards. “President Bachmann will allow you to buy any light bulb you want in the United States of America,” she said after announcing her presidential bid. Bachman is today’s freedom fighter – but for whom? Or what? She said in a speech in November, "I believe in liberty for light bulbs."
In 1776, the nation’s founders believed their fight for freedom was a struggle for genuine civil and political rights. In 1941, FDR expanded on those aspirations to include “freedom from want” that would translate into economic security and health for all. In 2011, the GOP’s cartoon-like fight for freedom to use polluting light bulbs is hard to take seriously.
The tea party controlled GOP complain that faceless government bureaucrats are limiting consumers’ freedom. Yet it was government action that prevented Americans from using Thalidomide in the early 1960s, that required auto companies to install seat belts, air bags and collapsible steering columns, or that removed cancer causing chemicals such as asbestos and benzene from our workplaces. That’s what government SHOULD do – to weigh dangers created in the market against the common good.
Newer, more efficient light bulbs will actually save consumers $12 billion per year. And the energy standards will make new energy saving technologies like the LED bulbs that lit the new Times Square Ball that dropped on New Year’s Eve become cheaper as more consumers buy them.
But even if the new standards did cost more, it would be worth the price. If they require more care to dispose of used bulbs, it’d be worth the effort. We don’t have the right to pollute, poison or harm others – whether it saves money or costs more. That’s not freedom and certainly not democracy.