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» The Ornery American Forum » General Comments » Interesting Op-Ed on the role of government in setting technological standards

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Author Topic: Interesting Op-Ed on the role of government in setting technological standards
philnotfil
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nytimes.com

Introduction about the backlash against the standards which would end the use of incandescent lights, including the praise heaped upon Edison for mainstreaming them.

quote:
Republicans are right, of course, to praise inventors like Edison for their pioneering advancements at the close of the 19th century. But inventions alone weren’t enough to guarantee progress.

Indeed, at the time the lack of standards for everything from weights and measures to electricity — even the gallon, for example, had eight definitions — threatened to overwhelm industry and consumers with a confusing array of incompatible choices.

This wasn’t the case everywhere. Germany’s standards agency, established in 1887, was busy setting rules for everything from the content of dyes to the process for making porcelain; other European countries soon followed suit. Higher-quality products, in turn, helped the growth in Germany’s trade exceed that of the United States in the 1890s.

America finally got its act together in 1894, when Congress standardized the meaning of what are today common scientific measures, including the ohm, the volt, the watt and the henry, in line with international metrics. And, in 1901, the United States became the last major economic power to establish an agency to set technological standards.

The result was a boom in product innovation in all aspects of life during the 20th century. Today we can go to our hardware store and choose from hundreds of light bulbs that all conform to government-mandated quality and performance standards.

quote:
The best approach would be to borrow from Japan, whose Top Runner program sets energy-efficiency standards by identifying technological leaders in a particular industry — say, washing machines — and mandating that the rest of the industry keep up. As technologies improve, the standards change as well, enabling a virtuous cycle of improvement.

At the same time, the government should work with businesses to devise multidimensional standards, so that consumers don’t balk at products because they sacrifice, say, brightness and cost for energy efficiency.

This is not to say that innovation doesn’t bring disruption, and American policymakers can’t ignore the jobs that are lost when government standards sweep older technologies into the dustbin of history.

An effective way forward on light bulbs, then, would be to apply standards only to those manufacturers that produce or import in large volume. Meanwhile, smaller, legacy light-bulb producers could remain, cushioning the blow to workers and meeting consumer demand.

Technologies and the standards that guide their deployment have revolutionized American society. They’ve been so successful, in fact, that the role of government has become invisible — so much so that even members of Congress should be excused for believing the government has no business mandating your choice of light bulbs.


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Greg Davidson
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An old example from the 1960's was the "UHF" dial on television sets. If TV sets had a UHF dial, you could then have many more broadcast stations. But until there was a large viewer ship out there, TV manufacturers were not going to add the cost to put in a UHF dial. And until there were a lot of TV sets that could get UHF signals, broadcasters were not going to invest in new stations that transmitted UHF signals. The free market can't solve this problem. So the federal government did, by mandating that all televisions that were manufactured had to have a UHF dial. And the manufacturers, the broadcasters, and the public benefited.
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Ben
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The government has the ability and right to define measurements and standards, as long as people still have choices. I don't think the comparison to mandating TVs be made with UHF dials is a good one because the government here is banning incandescent light bulbs, restricting choices for people, instead of expanding choices that benefit everyone while still allowing them to use their old equipment. A better analogy with TV's would be the switch over to digital broadcast signals which ended analog broadcasts and made analog TVs obsolete, but which was balanced and supported by vouchers for digital to analog adapters so people weren't out $$ + still got more options. There is no balancing equivalent of this for dimmer light switches, high/low lights, or alternatives for people who are sensitive to fluorescent lights flickering and many other such issues, options, + costs that are not addressed by the fluorescent mandate. Choices are not even expanded here but restricted, particularly for people who have different values. I'd rather use incandescent lights in winter when I'd like the extra heat + not have to worry about the cold or pollution if a light broke, necessitating mercury ventilation. And I'm sure many parents would be happy to not have so much more to worry about when they have wild boys (or girls) playing in the house. I remember my family having to replace quite a few bulbs when growing up, due to a few play accidents.
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Greg Davidson
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How about the ban of clorofluorcarbons (CFC's), imposed in the early 1990's because of damage to the atmospheric ozone layer? Substitutes were introduced to power our aerosol spray products (despite the usually screaming from industry that a bunch of tree-huggers were going to hurt business with their unsubstantiated science).
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JWatts
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The fundamental issue with the "ban" on the incandescent light bulb is that the approach is ill thought out.

1) There isn't a great replacement for the incandescent light bulb.

Out of the two likely replacements, CFLs' suffer from a different color lighting, poor cold performance and containing mercury, and LED's are costly and uni-directional.

2) A tax would have been a better approach than a ban.

Does anyone think that the incandescent light bulb should be treated like tobacco or like cocaine? A $0.25 per bulb would have served to reduce demand, but still allow people the choice. Over time the tax could have been increased, much like the taxes on tobacco have gotten steadily higher.

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TomDavidson
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It seems to me that subsidizing the purchase of CFLs would have been largely sufficient.
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JWatts
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quote:
Originally posted by TomDavidson:
It seems to me that subsidizing the purchase of CFLs would have been largely sufficient.

Then you've got the government attempting to pick a future winner. Nobody is that smart. It's quite probable that LED's will completely replace CFL's within the next 10-20 year time frame.

If the goal is increased efficiency, ideally you would tax all light devices on an inverse efficiency basis. So the lower the lumen/watts output the higher the tax. Then let the market find the preferred solution.

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Pyrtolin
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The government isn't picking a winner, though; it's just eliminating an entrenched looser. It didn't mandate CFLs, it just told industry that can't use incandescents as a crutch to sandbag on anymore.

I do think that there should be some slack for special purpose lighting (specifically heat lamps and theater lighting where there are explicit spectrum needs), but on the whole all that's really happened is a minimum bar has been set to drive innovation. Much in the same way that similar standards broke stagnation in toilet design and significantly improved efficiency (despite Rand Paul's apparent long standing battle with constipation because of his inability to do some basic consumer research)

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Pyrtolin
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quote:
Originally posted by TomDavidson:
It seems to me that subsidizing the purchase of CFLs would have been largely sufficient.

Most utility companies are currently subsidizing CFLs, to my knowledge.

I think, from the other side, though, we're safe from the issue that some water companies are facing where they have to raise rates to meet baseline expenses because exceptional efficiency improvements have actually tipped usage below operational costs.

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