Dark Days

The GOP’s Relentless Crusade to Save America From Commie Light Bulbs

You’ll have to pry incandescents out of their cold, dead hands. How one little-noticed new budget provision keeps alive the most ridiculous element of Republicans’ culture war.

You may not be following the budget debate wrapping up on Capitol Hill right now. Between Chris Christie and Bruce Springsteen and the Oscar nominations and the Justin Bieber cellphone controversy, it got kind of lost.

But one fact about this new budget is worth contemplation. It carries forward the culture war over light bulbs. Yes, light bulbs. And the reasons for the light-bulb culture war? Well, pretty much the same reasons for the rest of the culture war. Light bulbs became culture-war fodder about three years ago when they started to look like curly fries at Arby’s. They started costing more. They got… funny. And confusing. Now we had to learn about things like “lumens”—which sounds vaguely European, like some legume favored by those socialized-medicine-loving people of Scandinavia. Of course this happened after Obama became president. And, of course, libruls and gummint people started talking them up.

But it was George W. Bush’s Department of Energy that got this ball rolling, back in 2007, and the light-bulb industry immediately embraced the switchover to CFL bulbs (compact fluorescents—the squiggly spiraley ones) because they had the technology on hand to start making them and capture market share. They last far longer than incandescent bulbs and save enormous amounts of energy. If every American household replaced 15 old-style bulbs with 15 CFLs, or better yet LED bulbs (the ones that often have that kind of fan-like look on the narrow part of the body leading up to the bulb), we’d save an equivalent of more than 40 power plants’ energy output.

But as Groucho sang in Duck Soup, “Whatever it is, I’m against it,” and so it is with conservatives: If liberals are for it, they automatically turn anti. A study last spring by a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania found the following: She took two sets of liberals and conservatives and explained to them that CFL bulbs cost more upfront but saved money over the long haul and could reduce our dependence on foreign energy sources. At this point, liberals and conservatives reacted with more or less equal enthusiasm. But then? As Grist reported it: “Slap a message on the CFL’s packaging that says ‘Protect the Environment,’ and ‘we saw a significant dropoff in more politically moderates and conservatives choosing that option,’ said study author Dena Gromet.”

So if official, educated-seeming people say it’s good for the planet, oppose it. Even if you liked it before you knew it was good for the planet.

Michele Bachmann was once the czarina of this counter-revolution, but now that she’s leaving, this constituency has its heroic avatar in the person of Mike Burgess, a congressman from, where the hell else, Texas. Burgess is a medical doctor, a credential that’s supposed to make people like me think twice before we make sport of him. But I say the evidence is increasing year by year that the medical profession is providing us with some of the looniest reactionaries we’ve ever seen roam those halls. Maybe Rand Paul would actually support the 1964 Civil Rights Act if he’d spent a little less time studying the ocular nervous system, which a political leader doesn’t need to know the first thing about anyway, and more reading his Southern history, which I damn well want my political leaders to know everything about.

In any case, Burgess likes to rail against these pushy liberals and their tricky, communistic light bulbs. He recruited Joe Barton (a fellow Texan) and Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn (not exactly the House’s brightest… bulbs) to draft pro-old-bulb legislation. In this budget, he’s tucked in a provision that would bar funding for enforcement of the new light bulb standards. The Washington Post’s Brad Plumer notes that it isn’t going to make much difference, as GE and Sylvania and the other biggies are firmly committed in production terms to the new bulbs.

This is just so far beyond ridiculous. Light bulbs as a source of elitist resentment? Conservatives get angry when liberals sneer at them for being stupid, and sometimes liberals are condescending, and conservatives have a right to be angry. But another way to keep people from sneering at you for doing stupid things is not to do such stupid things.

What’s going to happen when someone finally invents practical, affordable, post-internal-combustion future and we can all afford cars that no longer burn gas? You know exactly what’s going to happen. The major car companies will adapt, and most of us will, too. But there will surely arise a car company that will make gas-guzzlers the likes of which we’ve never seen, and it will be based, no doubt, in Texas, catering to all who don’t want to give up their “freedom.” In the meantime, maybe GE can invent a CFL bulb that doubles as something you can affix to the end of your shotgun and take out into the woods and kill endangered species with. Then the Texans’ll snap ’em up.