Give Me An Incandescent Bulb or Give Me Death
By Dave Swenson
Iowa’s perennial legislative cut-up, U.S. Representative Steve King of Kiron, got the crowd a-roaring at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). According to Jennifer Jacobs, the Des Moines Register’s ace political reporter, he likened those who would compel energy-saving alternatives upon the masses as “Stassi troops.” For those of you who aren’t addicted to cold war spy novels, the Stassi were the East German secret police – the Gestapo of their time.
His particular gripe was the mandatory conversion to energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs. It’s the last straw, and our freedom is threatened, he claimed. Only Steve King could draw a line between U.S. law, passed by a democratically elected congress and signed by a democratically elected president (G.W. Bush), and brutal, communist dictatorship and oppression. “Give me my liberty back,” he cried.
Mr. King defines freedom as being able to screw whatever he wants into his lamp.
Mr. King, to put it nicely, is an odd duck. Were one to plot a normal curve of legislative standing from left-wing to right-wing, he would fall in the extreme right tail of that distribution. And were one to plot only the Republicans in the House and the Senate, he would still be out on the wacky fringe. Like the Maytag repairman, I suspect it is pretty lonely in the space Mr. King’s head sits.
He rarely demonstrates much awareness of our history, most especially that part of history involving the remedying social and environmental excesses that we could no longer ignore. And if he can acknowledge policy antecedents, he is dead-certain government’s reach exceeded its grasp. Except, he noted, were government to investigate un-American activities again, ala the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s, “I would support it,” he told Right Side News in 2010.
It is an article of faith among many conservatives like Mr. King that all forms of government activity beyond national defense are suspect, yet history is replete with example after example of markets failing, people dying, and our governments, such as they were at the time, left to pick up the pieces and try to assure those failings don’t happen again.
It is clear to all but the most belligerent libertarians that child-labor, underground mining conditions, procedures for handling dangerous substances, air and water emissions, or driving limits for over-the-road truckers all require government action and over-sight. We know that the meat industry would never have cleaned up its act were it not for the scandal-induced passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act plus aggressive federal oversight of that awful industry. We know that chemical and other factories would never have cleaned up the land upon which they dumped their wastes were it not for the Super Fund. And we darned-well know that were it not for aggressive federal and state regulation, much of which was informed by the Exxon Valdez tanker oil spill in Alaska, British Petroleum would have escaped major financial responsibility, most especially for the environmental consequences, in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year.
Governments always play catch-up to the private sector’s excesses. Lead was eliminated as an additive to gasoline for good, but not until 1996, a full 30 years after it was clear to all that lead in the air, most especially in dense urban areas, was causing irreversible harm, especially to children. Lead is toxic. Period. For that reason we no longer have lead in our gas, paint, pipes, solder, and in many states, hunting ammunition. It kills.
Were it not for the Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, the agency all conservatives are taught from birth to hate, there would have been no change in that situation or any hundreds of other situations the market ignored so long as the waste, slag, sludge, refuse, poison, and human waste could be passed on without penalty or accountability.
There was a strong market response to the use of incandescent bulbs: it was negative, and the writing was clearly on the wall. Anyone who can do even rudimentary math can calculate the energy savings in the home, the store, or the factory from the conversion. And anyone with any sense of personal or business economy continuously adopts the most efficient alternative.
Mr. King, however, took it upon himself to replace the efficient compact fluorescent bulbs in his office, according to the tale he told CPAC, with “illegal” incandescent bulbs. He thinks himself a hero for his stand, but in truth he’s just one more politician grandstanding on the public’s dime.
You see, he doesn’t pay his electric bill on Capitol Hill, we do. And he’s chosen the alternative that would cost us all more.
Such a strange stand for such a principled conservative.
Dave Swenson is a long-time analyst of Iowa political, social, and economic issues. He is a staff research economist at Iowa State University and a community and regional economics analyst and educator. He also teaches planners (those nefarious agents of totalitarian control) how to do economic things in their profession at both Iowa State University and The University of Iowa.