By Paul Gregory
Steven Chu was a co-winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997. That he developed methods to cool and trap atoms with laser light does not mean he understands economics, consumer choice, or politics. A Nobel Prize does not even guarantee common sense. Often it guarantees the opposite.
In a Friday conference call with reporters, Chu argued against a House bill that would repeal a 2007 federal law outlawing incandescent bulbs. Many Americans object to being told that must buy the fluorescent, halogen, and LED bulbs starting in January of 2012 as dictated by federal law.
Chu argued the more-efficient bulbs mandated by Congress save consumers money over the bulb’s life even though the up-front price is higher. Chu defended Congress’s right to dictate what kind of light bulb Americans buy because:
“We are taking away a choice that continues to let people waste their own money.”
There are many things that cost more up front and “pay for themselves” in terms of longer life or lower operating costs. Think of insulation which costs a bundle but lowers utility bills, or electric cars that costs $10,000 more but save on gas. So far, we have allowed the people themselves to decide: More money now, but less later? Or: Less money now and more later? That is my or your decision.
The choice of light bulb is a classic problem of economic choice over time. Consumers, who place a high value on money now, do not buy insulation, electric cars, or fluorescent lights. We have different time preferences. People who pass on insulation, electric cars and fluorescent light bulbs are by no means wasting their money. They are making choices that are perfectly rational for them.
This basic point of economics escapes Nobel laureate Chu.
Which light bulb is better for you is not an easy calculation. The compact fluorescent costs about six times more and contains hazardous mercury, but lasts six times longer and saves energy. There are also matters of taste and aesthetics. Some will find the new light bulb shape ugly. Others will not like the light it emits, but there will no longer be any choice. Just like we lost Freon in 1995, we will lose Edison’s light bulb in 2012.
Chu says the state should make the choice of light bulbs for you, but why should he stop there? Why not insulation or which car to buy?
Welcome to the Nanny state.