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Michele Bachmann's lightbulb moment

Posted: April 2, 2011 - 10:11pm

Michele Bachmann, who is basically Sarah Palin with better articulation, appears to be mapping a 2012 Republican presidential bid. Swell. This means we’ll be hearing a lot more about how the socialists are coming to take away our incandescent lightbulbs.

Seriously, this is one of Bachmann’s big causes. She happens to be flat wrong on the facts, but people who pay attention to facts probably wouldn’t vote for her anyway. Besides, she’s interested in being visceral, not empirical, and the lightbulb shtick is a wonderful way to quicken tea party pulses.

To give you a flavor, here’s what she said earlier this month, while stumping in New Hampshire: “I think Thomas Edison did a pretty patriotic thing for this country by inventing the lightbulb, and I think darn well, you New Hampshirites, if you want to buy Thomas Edison’s wonderful invention, you should be able to!”

By the way, she got her history wrong: Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb (he made a 50-year-old idea better). But let’s proceed to the more urgent task of figuring out what the heck Bachmann is talking about.

Turns out, she’s upset that the federal government, starting next winter, will require the manufacture of lightbulbs far more energy-efficient than the traditional incandescents. She wants to repeal the recently enacted law that puts Big Brother under your lamp shade.

“The government has no business telling an individual what kind of lightbulb to buy,” she declares, but as she continues to imply that this law is all Obama’s doing, here’s the fun part she always leaves out:

The law was passed in 2007 with strong bipartisan congressional support (including 39 Republican senators) — and it was signed by President George W. Bush.

So this is no liberal “nanny-state” conspiracy. In reality, this law officially acknowledges that saving energy is a patriotic act; that new-technology bulbs will use 25 percent to 30 percent less energy than current incandescents, save the average household as much as $200 a year in energy costs, and sharply cut power-plant pollution — thereby lessening the greenhouse-gas emissions that contribute to global warming.

But such empiricism doesn’t fly with Bachmann, since she doesn’t even believe that humans contribute to global warming (“voodoo,” she calls it, “nonsense, hokum, a hoax”). Fortunately for her, that position puts her in sync with the conservatives who will kick off the Republican primary season next winter in Iowa and New Hampshire. They’re undoubtedly more than happy to believe that Obama is the president who inked the deal to curb their lightbulb freedom.

This is prime red-meat rhetoric, because it conjures the specter of big government dictating personal behavior. It’s an old game. Conservatives freaked out in the mid-1970s when the feds started to mandate the use of seat belts. I remember James Buckley (brother of the iconic William F.) insisting that Americans reserved the right to be “idiots,” that government had no right to “take the risk out of life.” Alas, the feds went ahead and denied people the freedom to be roadkill; between 1975 and 2001, according to the official stats, seat belts saved 147,246 lives. So it’s hardly a surprise that government — with Bush’s signature — would take steps in the energy realm to enhance quality of life.

Moreover, the bulb law is sparking free-market innovation. The major manufacturers, including General Electric and Philips, are already rolling out energy-efficient bulbs — which is why, contrary to Bachmann’s claim that Big Brother is supposedly limiting choice, choice is instead rapidly expanding (compact fluorescent, halogen, light-emitting diode, electron-stimulated luminescence). And, again contrary to Bachmann, the law doesn’t ban the traditional incandescent bulb; as a Philips vice president recently remarked: “The incandescent lightbulb actually lives. It’s just going to be 30 percent more efficient.”

So Washington isn’t dictating anything. The new law was a response to where the market was already going. Energy-conscious consumers have long been gravitating to the compact fluorescent lights — in 2001, CFLs were only 1 percent of the market; by 2008, their share exceeded 20 percent. Check out the Home Depot website, which heralds the “national shift towards clean energy” and charts all the new-tech options.

I’d always assumed that Republicans were hardwired to applaud this kind of private-sector initiative. Not in this case, however. Bachmann is one of those politicians who prefers to try to convert paranoia into votes by dwelling in the realm of the counterfactual. She has found the perfect issue for America’s dimmest bulbs.

• Dick Polman is a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may write to him at: Philadelphia Inquirer, P.O. Box 8263, Philadelphia, Pa. 19101, or by e-mail at dpolman@phillynews.com; blog: http://www.dickpolman.blogspot.com.

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