Wednesday, August 20, 2008
Noggle's In The Driveway Again
Government making life more expensive for us in today's Kirkwood-Webster Journal.

Here's my letter to the editor in reply to your column that they probably won't print. I hope you do more research next time. And here's a couple of links:
Mr. Noggle raises an important question about the role government should play in regulating goods and behavior. While I agree that we should be careful in these actions, his main point about compact-flourescent bulbs is misinformed, devaluing his argument.

First, he is wrong about the cost. A 6-pack of 75 watt-equivalent GE CFLs is listed at 12.84 at, which is far less than the 4 dollars per bulb he claims, and prices will likely fall as manufacturing is increased. Consistent with many people, he fails to compare the total cost of ownership and instead focuses on upfront cost. It's like complaining that a hybrid Toyota costs 3000 more than a conventional one while dismissing the fact that you can save 6000 dollars in gas over its life. One CFL will last 3-5 years, in which time you'd have to buy several incandescents, minimizing the cost difference. Furthermore, the electricity required to power the incandescent will cost 30 dollars or more extra on your bill over that time. CFLs really are cheaper in the long run. Even if short on/off cycles do reduce the lifespan, they will still last longer and save money over incandescents.

While compact-flourescents do contain mercury, it is a small amount, and newer bulbs are getting by with increasingly smaller amounts. The amounts are small enough that some simple cleanup steps after breakage are really sufficient. It should also be noted that much of the electricity in this country is generated by burning coal, especially in this region. Coal contains mercury, so powering an incandescent with coal-generated electricity results in more mercury being spewed into the air than is contained in a CFL. Plus, the CFL encloses the mercury, so proper disposal and recycling limits the environmental effects. As CFLs become more popular, recycling and disposal centers will become more common and accessible. If that still isn't enough, Mr. Noggle may like to investigate LED bulbs, which do not contain mercury and confer all the advantages of CFLs.

Even acting selfishly, compact-flourescents are an easy choice. However, we live in a society, and our actions also affect others. Consider this quote from the government's ENERGY STAR site on CFLs: "If every American home replaced just one light bulb with an ENERGY STAR qualified bulb, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars." Not only is choosing CFLs good for you, it's good for the environment and our economy, as well for our energy independence.

Lastly, when Mr. Noggle refers to exterior lights that are on for extended periods, I hope he doesn't mean he leaves his porch light on all night, even if they are CFLs. Light pollution is annoying to neighbors, interferes with animals such as lightning bugs, and blocks out the stars. Ironically, it also decreases nighttime visibility because the lights reduce one's sensitivity to darker areas and thus the shadows and unlighted areas are less visible.

Hi, John, thanks for stopping by.

* I checked Schnucks and Ace Hardware's prices for CFL bulbs, as these match my light bulb purchasing habits. A 6 pack for $13 is still over $2 a bulb, so although you're cutting the cost in half, you're still making the bulbs 8x more expensive than currently.

* I have looked into LED lights, but as you know (which, I think you would say "devaluing his argument") they are not widely available in the intensities required for primary lighting purposes.

* By talking about Total Cost of Ownership and other projected statistical values, you have to remember that you're talking about averages, and unless I miss my guess, projected at this point. Anecdote: a guy I know had his Prius totaled. He didn't have it long enough to recoup his extra investment in fuel efficiency, so he sacrificed that additional cost up front and did not recoup it (well, aside from insurance replacing it). My point is arguing from TCO and such really is prognostication, whereas spending the money is a single event that is measurable. I think that's my point.

* Comparing mercury emitted by electricity generation to CFLs really goes outside the bounds of the arguments I make.

* Even when you describe good reasons to buy more energy efficient apparatus, ultimately you resort to the collectivist "However, we live in a society, and our actions also affect others." That argument leads to any sort of government (or societal) imposition, does it not? It's the interstate commerce clause of conscience. The overlord's conscience.

* Light "pollution"? You're kidding, right? No, you're too earnest. Well, I leave my lights on for security. You would have me sacrifice a slight increase in security for my neighbor's comfort and to cut down on an invented "pollution"? Yeah, you probably would.

The Suburban Journals have really cut their letters to the editor space lately, but I remind you that you can leave a comment on the Web site at the link above.

"8x more expensive than currently": No, that's only upfront cost. And for an incandescent you can only use it for six months instead of four years. I don't see how you can compare them 1x1 like that. If you consider the total cost of ownership, CFLs cost less. If you buy a car, and you factor in only the sticker price, and not the cost of insurance, gas, and repairs that you'll be making over years with it, then you are making a poor decision. If you buy a light bulb and only factor in the cost of the bulb, and not the electricity to power it (you do turn it on, right?) or the environmental cost of it, then you are making a similar mistake. I think your only chance here is with the TCO argument (covered next).

TCO: To not buy a Prius because someone may run into you after 6 months isn't really much of an argument against it. There's always some outlier case where things do go according to averages, but that's not reason to ignore the statistics. I'm sure somebody has died 2 days after buying life insurance, but they still sell life insurance. Similarly, if CFLs average 4 years of life, you have to calculate their savings in replacement incandescents and electricity over 4 years and not limit it to 6 months because 1 bulb in a thousand breaks early or you might tip your lamp over. CFLs have been out long enough that I trust the life expectancy estimates are valid (regular flourescent lighting has been used in offices and schools for decades).

Mercury: Why is it outside the bounds (space considerations aside)? Your point was that mercury in CFLs is bad, and my point is it's not compared to other things.

Society: Two angles here. One is that I was offering the societal benefit point as an additional impetus for adopting CFLs - I don't see that it takes away from the rest of the good reasons.
Second, I agree that government intervention is bad in most cases. The default should be no action. However, the exceptions are made to protect the larger interest. If you are for allowing the government to force companies not to pollute rivers, protecting downstream residents, then you can be for a CFL mandate, protecting all citizens from increased pollution and more expensive energy (due to higher demand). I probably mostly agree with you here, that the government is on shaky ground legislating this kind of stuff, but often there are overriding interests (the health of our environment, energy independence, etc.) Regardless, this really isn't the point of my letter. The point was I thought you had some misinformation about CFLs (and such misinformation makes me question how much I trust the rest of the article, fair or not).

Light pollution: This is off-topic, but it's a sore spot for me. First of all, if you would read any of the scientific literature, you would realize that lights aren't really the security panacea people make them out to be. If everything is uniformly dark, then your eyes adjust and you can see everything. If there are lights on, then your eyes adjust to the brightest parts, leaving the darker shadows impenetrable to your vision (not to mention problems seeing through glare). So a thief just has to lurk in the shadows. At least get a motion sensor. Here are a couple of the first google links (take a look at the picture at the bottom of the first link for a good example). Please read them with an open mind (or do your own research - these probably aren't the best sites but I don't have time to re-find the literature).

And a good enough overview:

And an "invented pollution"? Don't you miss seeing the stars at night? Don't you think lightning bugs are cool? If there were some chemical floating around that killed lightning bugs and frogs, it would be called a pollutant. Well, lights do that, so why isn't it a pollutant? It's a non-natural occurrence that disrupts the environment. And I sure would have you sacrifice an (imagined, immeasurable) increase in security for my absolutely real increase in comfort (better sleep among others).

(I'm not sure how the tone seems, but I mean it to be a healthy debate, not bickering. And I'm not a tree-hugging liberal - more like an anarchist/libertarian. But facts are facts whether I agree or not.)

Actually, the larger point is that the government is forcing these choices upon us through regulation or legislation. The sort of thing I would expect an "anarchist/libertarian" to oppose on principle, but your mileage may vary.

You consider TCO to be the driving number in economic transactions. I think initial outlay is as important or more important. So you should have the right to decide on CFLs, and I should be free to choose incandescence. However, that's not how the government sees it.

Speaking of life insurance, you know there are two types, right? One, whole life, is sort of like an investment plan that will eventually pay some cash out if you live long enough. Term, on the ther hand, only pays out if you die within the policy's effective dates. One can argue which is the better puchase (term is cheaper but only pays out on death, whole life as an investment vehicle underperforms most things, and so on). However, I chose whole life for my own reasons, and I'd be as incensed if the government came along to prohibit the choice.

I understand you're retroactively debating the merits of CFL over incandescents, but the decision has been made for you, citizen. This time the government has mandated what you would do of your free will. It won't always be that way.

I do oppose the government forcing choices, and I respect that even in this case one might not support the decision. But I also oppose my quality of life going down because of the poor choices of the larger population. I don't oppose the government getting involved to stop people from killing me or stealing my money, so I won't oppose them getting in the way of doing something that will both increase the quality of life of everyone as well as reduce our dependency on foreign energy. Not the best, but sometimes there are tough choices, and I think human civilization is operating in a way that is going to cause more touch choices in the future. Sometimes my ideology has to give way to practicality. It seems your has held stronger, which I respect.

You're free to disregard TCO, and I'm free to think that you are shortsighted or have bad math skills. Basically, the argument is: "This bulb is $0.50, and next year I'll charge you $30 dollars for electricity. This bulb is $2, and next year I'll charge you $5 in electricity." I don't see how you can ignore that. There are cases where I'll make a decision like that, and TCO isn't the only and ultimate factor, but I don't think this is one of those cases. I do understand that, if you truly think incandescents are better, then losing that choice is pretty annoying.

The life insurance comment was just a quick example of how you have to play the percentages and statistics and not the outliers. Insurance companies make a lot of money doing that, so it can be a succesful strategy, and I think it applies to the TCO argument of CFLs. Any other implications were unintended.

Good talking with you.

The "But" is the butt of my argument.

It is inconsistent to oppose government mandates except where they coincide with your interest.

Too many of the attentive and the (self-)educated amongst our countrymen are willing to make that trade. If the government itself lets on that they're making a trade at all.

I understand what you are saying, but I think you are missing my reasoning. If I didn't want government involvement, and weren't willing to make exceptions, then we would be talking about anarchy. I think that is impractical, and thus I am willing to allow some amount of government in order to maintain a society. The question, then, is what type of government involvment is necessary for this, and what type is unnecessary.

You seem to think that I am allowing this piece of government solely because I agree with it. While I think a lot of people clamor for government intervention to solve or affect something they personally have a stake in, I do not see this instance that way. This is a motion that reduces harm for all of the U.S., much like regulating how much mercury a factory can dump into the river. Reducing energy consumption, and thus greenhouse gases and pollution, makes life better for everyone (and animals and plants). This (preventing societal harm) is an acceptable allowance to me. If you feel that people should be allowed to make their own choices even if it slowly destroys the quality of life for millions of others, that's fine, but I disagree. The only time you can interfere with someone's choices is when those choices negatively affect others, and I think this is just such an example. (I do agree that you can destroy your own life if you want, e.g. by smoking.) If you disagree that incandescents are wasteful and that CFLs will reduce our overall energy consumption, then, yes, the government mandate is bogus. But I think that incandascents, given that there are better alternatives, indirectly cause harm to others, and thus are subject to regulation.

The amount of government involvement is indeed where we differ. I prefer to limit it to respecting the rights of other's persons and their real property. Thus, mandates against murder, assault, theft, and so on.

Once you extend it beyond that, as our government already has, suddenly it's carte blanche to intrude and make up rules on whatever "quality of life" issues it wants.

Such as mandating Priuses and hybrids for automobiles. Why not? All of your TCO and communitarian quality of life arguments apply to that step as well as well as many, many others further along the ad absurdum spectrum. I don't see a difference of principle to prevent them.

Just to get it out of the way, I don't see the TCO discussion as having anything to do with the government stuff, just with your opinion that CFLs aren't that great. I think there were two distinct discussions - ie economic soundness doesn't play into the decision to allow government intervention. Anyway...

You are right - it's not obvious where to draw the line on some of these issues. And I'm not sure I differ on the amount, just what constitutes "the rights of other's persons and their real property". I would not support mandated Priuses, but slowly raising MPG requirements or emissions requirements is okay. Similarly, the government just raised the efficiency bar, but didn't mandate a specific type of bulb, nor manufacturer or wattage. I think that there is a real threat to my person (via pollution effects, or fights over dwindling oil supplies, etc.) by not doing some of these things that would not be done otherwise. I will concede that it's not as clear-cut as I would like - it's not as visceral as knowing that getting stabbed is personal harm - and I do get on other people for similar slippery-slope-esque thinking (free speech, etc.). But I think it will prevent harm while not removing any real choice in the market. I think we will just have to agree to disagree.

To inject myself in this seemingly already resolved conversation... Personally, I don't welcome the government mandates.

[Such as mandating Priuses and hybrids for automobiles. Why not?]

Why not? Because there isn't a single hybrid vehicle on the market that I want to drive. I work hard for my money, shouldn't I get to choose my vehicle? Am I not free in America to pursue happiness?

Seriously, government mandates are almost always shortsighted, and we do pay for them. Viable solutions to problems don't have to be mandated. It's as simple as that. A mandate tells you 1 thing: People aren't doing it, because it just doesn't make sense to them.

Maybe TCO is lower, but people don't have or want to spend the cash on hand for up-front costs, because they'd rather buy food or heat their home that month.

Maybe pollution is lower, but there is the added requirement of specialty-recycling or the risk of contamination.

Maybe the product life is longer, but the output is not as visually appealing.

From my perspective as a capitalist, the bottom line is pretty simple, and always works: Devise a solution that people WANT, and it will succeed AND generate profits. A government mandate means that A) People don't want it, or B) Businesses can't justify supporting it. Either way, the American people usually come out with the losing hand when the Government dictates their behavior as a consumer.

My argument against CFL bulbs is simply:

1) If the power is generated through clean renewable resources, then the type of bulb simply doesn't matter.

2) The cost of light bulbs is not so high that I need to save money in this area by calculating TCO (which btw, has not been done in any of the postings here)

3) I don't like the color of light thrown by CFL bulbs.

4) I won't recycle them anyhow, so I'm hurting the environment either way.

5) The last time I went to look at CFL bulbs, the ones I saw were made in another country. I'd rather spend more, and replace them every 6 months so that the american manufacturer and the energy companies can keep jobs in this country.

The light bulb was once thought to be one of mankinds greatest inventions... today, people try to demonize it for the sake of "saving the planet." I disagree - it is still a wonderful invention. And when a better invention becomes available, I will gladly get on board.

But, as my article says, they effectively barred incandescent bulbs because they do not meet the standard.

As far "You are right - it's not obvious where to draw the line on some of these issues", it should be obvious. One should have a principle that one can apply to a problem beforehand; to go into a situation and then make some determination and then explain the reasons for it is not acting on principle. It's rationalizing.

It's very clear to me what role the government should have in mandating efficiencies, especially to "save the planet": none. It's clear to me what role the government should have in handling assault: punish the offenders. Period. That's limited government.

As to "agreeing to disagree," well, we certainly disagree. Unfortunately, while we disagree, your ideal government imposes its will upon me, disagreement or not, whereas mine would let you used thatched roofs to avoid fighting for dwindling petroleum supplies used in modern roofing products.

One of us favors compulsion, the other does not. The difference is antithetical in nature.

First, let me reiterate that my immediate response to Brian's column had nothing to do with any opinion on the government mandate one way or another. I thought he was providing misinformation about CFLs and I sought to correct that (eg price, mercury). I think that you, too, anonymous, are wrong on a couple of points. Following your numbering:

1. Even with clean, renewable resources, why should I use more energy (ie spend more money) powering an less efficient bulb? That costs me money. Also, that energy could be used to power something else more useful. And with demand lower, the energy I do use will be cheaper.

2. I believe my first post did lay out some of the cost benefit. Here's somebody else's math. And another. I don't think the differences illustrated there are insignificant, and as electricity prices rise (they are), the difference becomes greater. Even if the savings were lower, that attitude adds up when you apply it to all the many goods you buy. To ignore the long-term in favor of the short-term just puts you in a worse position eventually. For instance, I could not pay the up-front cost of changing the oil in my car, and that might be cheaper for a while. But eventually perhaps I'll have to shell out for a new engine or car, and then I'll have paid even more and have less money for other stuff. To ignore TCO is to make decisions in a vacuum, which is both incorrect and ignorant.

3. While I think this may have been true years ago, I have many bulbs with appealing color temperature, and there is more variety available (soft white, daylight, etc) than with incandescents.

4. This is a bad spot currently for CFLs since recycling centers are limited. However, I will say that since a CFL lasts anywhere from 5-15 times as long as an incandescent, you'll be creating 5-15 times as much waste by not-recycling incandescents and not-recycling CFLs.

5. I do not know the answer one way or another, but if the savings in energy by using a CFL are offset by the extra energy used to ship it across the ocean, then, yes, that's a good factor. Ditto the Chinese factory polluting more than the coal-fired electric plants running here to power the incandescent bulb.

Again, irrespective of any opinion of government involvement or mandates, my contention is that, overall, CFLs are a better choice. They light up my house just as well and are cheaper, and (from my reading of the science) have an overall lower environmental impact. I think they are a better invention.

That we were also discussing the mandate (and government mandates) is orthogonal to this point. I am not trying to rationalize the mandate for CFLs by arguing their virtues. I will respond to the questions of my principles vis-a-vis government intervention separately.

It's true that you initially responded regarding CFL light bulbs; however, in the article itself, they were used as an example in government mandates. Other examples included low-flush toilets, emissions controls on lawnmowers, and water usage limitations on clothes and dish washers.

I hope you can understand why my mind returns to the government mandates and why I think they're the focal point of the discussion.

Please don't presume to know what my ideal government is. You seem to think that I am rationalizing these decisions as opposed to supporting them on principle, but I think it is you who does not have clear-cut principles. First, if you truly opposed all government interference, then you would be an anarchist. That's the other end along the ad absurdum spectrum that you claim I'm going down. Based on your comments it is clear that that is not your position. So you support some amount of voluntary compulsion (where you agree to be a citizen, and then are compelled to play by the same rules), whether that agreement is societal, local, state, federal, commune by-laws, or whatever. You have not layed out how to decide which things you would allow the government to do, whereas I have. My stance is that individual freedoms are retained, unless they infringe on others'. This includes the ultimate freedom: being alive and healthy. You seem to support some form of this, since you favor it being illegal for other people to kill you. Yet you are chastising me for being more permissive about letting the government reduce freedoms, when in fact it is you who are less strict in applying this rule to protect the life, health, and freedom of the most people, derisively calling it communitarian. You chastise me for lacking principle, or making decisions on a slippery slope, but, short of anarchy, you are also making decisions about where to draw the line, but you are neither explicit nor consistent about it.

"It's clear to me what role the government should have in handling assault: punish the offenders." I see two problems in this stance. One is that if you solely favor government intervention in the form of after-the-fact punishment, then you would have to oppose many sensible laws. For instance, drunk-driving is illegal. Must a drunk driver run someone over to be punished, or can we acceptably say that drunk driving is, statistically, enough of a risk for others that it should not be allowed? Must I actually shoot you, or can attempted murder be a crime? Unless you want to take that position, I think you must allow that some preventative rules are desirable. A second issue I want to bring up is one of semantics. You allow for these laws, but oppose "mandates". What's the difference between setting up a punishment for murder and mandating against murder? When it comes down to it, what all of this is striving for is behavior modification in order to protect oneself against others. Whether it be punishment, laws, fines, taxes, "compulsion", etc., they have the same purpose, and I think you are using certain words in certain scenarios for effect.

"I prefer to limit it to respecting the rights of other's persons and their real property." This quote seems to imply a rather narrow outlook as well. Must I actually harm you physically? How much? It's easy to say murder is bad, or I shouldn't stab you. What if I come up and give you a paper cut? Is that too petty for government involvement? Is there some objective line in the spectrum between paper cut and knife wound that you can magically see? If so, please describe what it is and how to find it. What if I just occasionally pinch your arm, or yell really loudly in your ear while in a public place? What if I follow you around every day for months doing it? Do you wish to waive your rights to a restraining order or harassment charge? Should I be able to play music loudly at 3am and keep you awake, or do you support noise ordinances? See, there are lines you draw, and you have to put them somewhere. I'm sure you are in favor of some of these type of "quality of life" measures, just not the "save the planet" ones you oppose. There are also levels of property. My life is more important that my house. My life is more important than your house. Thousands of lives are more important than your life. Does it have to be real, measurable damage? What if I swindle you out of some money? Is money real? If so, can I sue over $1? $1000? How much money is health worth? Slander and libel are illegal, and in those cases future or potential money is involved, or even just character. Is character real property? Is something potential but not actualized real? The only thing I see that can be easily defined is death.

Unless you are willing to deny that there can be preventative laws, or draw the line that death constitutes harm, then you have some tough choices to make that properly balance the freedoms of the greatest number of people. I think you're deluding yourself if you believe your consciously examined all of them and aren't just depending on internal assumptions and gut reactions for some of them. In the case of environmental regulations, you are either hypocritical in the sense that you support some laws that prevent harm but not others, or you are very ignorant of the supporting science on which the determination of harm is based.

Our oil and gas supplies are finite - no question about it. Chances are we will run out in the next 30-50 years, maybe even sooner. The US has 5% of the world's population but uses 25% of its energy. Wars have been fought over oil in the Middle East, and still are. There will probably be more. Our nation of modern conveniences is built almost exclusively on the prospect of cheap oil. So is our agricultural base, which is very dependent on fertilizers made from natural gas and oil-powered vehicles to do all the work of plowing, planting, harvesting, and shipping it around the world. Pharmecuticals depend on them. Simply put, life as we know it would not exist if oil & gas were suddenly to dry up. Screw everyone else - I don't want to die via famine or war, nor do I want to live in a dirt hut subsistence farming. If we are to have any hope of continuing life that in any way resembles this, then we have to be smarter about energy policy. I think that the wasteful use of these resources does very much involve potential harm for me.

I feel, therefore, very principled when accepting that some government 'mandates' might be in order with regards to energy policy. It is not some arbitrary decision - think of it as combining scientific evidence and a sort of "freedom calculus" to make the decision. Why? My right to continue to live, and live a healthy life, plus the rights of everyone else to the same thing, severely outweighs anyone's right to choose a specific type of light bulb. Eliminating incandescent bulbs does not take away your freedom to light your house, just as forbidding drunk driving doesn't affect your essential freedom to get drunk. Framing the argument in terms of "free to choose bulb of type X" is missing the mark. The real freedom is to live with the modern convenience of light bulbs, which is not significantly affected by this decision. But it does increase the prospects of the rest of the planet to keep enjoying their other freedoms (not the least of which is being alive). Similarly, MPG floors on vehicles provide an immense benefit in terms of energy saved, with zero cost in your ability to choose a car and drive it around. (Mandating Priuses does violate this principle.) These costs (namely our health and future livelihood) are externalities that cannot be taken into account in the free market, and must be handled at a higher level. This is exactly the sort of situation where an external force is necessary to escape the tragedy of the commons, to protect the long-term interest at (possibly) the expense of the short-term. The costs are not explicit at the point of decision.

So government has a right to enact a calorie restriction diet, then? Maybe vegetarianism?

These, too, will be good for your health and the health of the planet.

As far as my having no principles, note you then go on to state my principle pretty clear.

Now, how does your principle apply to the cases above (vegetarianism, calorie restriction diet). Perhaps you have additional principles to apply in those cases.

I'm not sure I've stated your principles. I have quoted you, asked questions about your stance, and made statements such as "if x then y". If I defined your principles then it was accidental, as I still don't know what they are.

"So government has a right to enact a calorie restriction diet, then? Maybe vegetarianism?" Note that when I talk about health I mean my continuence of life, and absence of harmful interference (pollutants, knives) caused by others. I've already said smoking and bad health decisions are your own fault. There's a big difference between preventing my early death by knife wound or arsenic poisoning and trying to make me live longer via sensible habits. One limits the ability of others to affect my life, one limits my ability.

"Perhaps you have additional principles to apply in those cases." If I tip $4 for a $20 meal, and $6 for a $30 meal, does that mean I have two principles? No, I have just one - tip 20%. Variable inputs, variable outputs. If we're on a Caribbean cruise, do I tell you not to overeat at the buffet or throw you overboard? No. If we're on a lifeboat with limited food, we ration to ensure survival for all. If it is overweighted and sinking, I throw the heaviest guy overboard so we don't all drown. It's a sliding scale that adapts to all cases. I don't see why that's such a hard concept to grasp. In fact, it eliminates the messiness of having a rule of "don't kill", since you only need a "continuous function" instead a hodgepodge of rules and exceptions.

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