Sunday, May 23, 2010

Shoplifting, ObamaCare and Property Rights

“For a priest in northern England, the commandment 'thou shalt not steal' isn't exactly written in stone,” according to Gregory Katz of the Associated Press. The Rev. Tim Jones told his congregation it is sometimes acceptable for desperate people to shoplift as long as they do it at large national chain stores, rather than small, family businesses. He said it is justified if a person in real need is not greedy and does not take more than he or she really needs to get by.

Archdeacon Richard Seed of the Church of England rejected that view: “Father Jones is raising important issues about the difficulties people face...but shoplifting is not the way to overcome these difficulties.”

At stake here is the issue of property rights: whether some people's need justifies violating other people's property rights. And that is the same issue at the root of President Obama's health care reform. He claims that some people's need for health insurance justifies taking vast sums of money from others to pay for it. This is to be done by reducing doctor's fees, increasing the income taxes on the rich,
taxing medical device manufacturers, imposing fines on those who fail to buy health insurance, a 40 percent excise tax on insurance companies that is keyed to high-end insurance policies, forcing low-risk enrollees (mostly the young) to pay more in order to cover the higher risks of others, etc.

There is another parallel here, too. Both Rev. Jones and President Obama ignore or “interpret” their way around a very clear principle they are supposed to uphold. What could be clearer than “thou shalt not steal?” It certainly makes no exception for stealing from the rich. Perhaps that priest believes in a “living” ten commandments just as Obama believes a “living” Constitution allows him to interpret
it in a way he believes appropriate to modern times and completely contrary to its historical meaning.

Where does the Constitution grant authority to the federal government for the president's health insurance program? Has Obama—who has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution—somehow interpreted that document to include the Marxist dictum “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need?” It seems so. The top one percent of American taxpayers already pays more income tax than the bottom 95 percent combined. The top 10 percent pay 72.4 percent of the total. Yet Obama wants to further increase taxes on the rich.

Of course, the bottom 90 percent has more votes than the top 10 percent, but is right and wrong determined by votes—or principle? If nine men vote to steal from a tenth man, does that make it right? If 90 percent of voters elect a majority of politicians to do the stealing for them, does that make it right? The principle of equal protection of the law should apply to protecting the wealth of everyone, the rich as well as the poor, just as “thou shalt not steal” does.

It is well known that the Founding Fathers were generally religious, but their recognition of property rights did not depend on the Christian commandment “thou shalt not steal.” Property rights are far older than Christianity. In fact, the word “steal” in itself reveals a prior recognition of property rights. In the hierarchical structure of language, words can be developed from earlier ones and depend upon them for their meaning. For example, the word “orphan” requires a prior knowledge of the word “parent,” without which it can have no meaning. Similarly, it is impossible to understand the meaning of the word “steal” without first having an understanding of the word “property,” without first knowing what rightful ownership of something by somebody means.

In the fifth century before Christ, the Greek city of Piraeus was the center of commerce in the Mediterranean. “This primacy was due,” writes historian Louis Rougier in The Genius of the West, "first and foremost, to the scrupulous respect given to private property. Each year, on entering office, the Athenian archon listed the possessions of every citizen and guaranteed him his ownership and rights of disposal.

"This primacy was almost equally due to a strong monetary discipline....And never throughout their long history, regardless of the difficulties in which they found themselves, did the Athenians ever change the legal title or the weight of their money....

"At a time when most other Greek cities were still living from the fruits of their lands and the production of their households, the Athenians had developed an exchange economy based on money. The money changers became the bankers who accepted deposits, made secured loans, and issued letters of exchange....

"Toward 450 B.C., Athens provided the first example of a state prepared to rely on overseas areas for its food supplies and to pay for these by cultivating a few special crops (vines and olives) and producing manufactured goods best suited to its natural aptitudes and resources....By the fourth century, Athens was importing four times as much food grain as it was producing...[and] paying with finished goods, such as vases, jewelry, arms, and fine cloth, for raw materials, food stuffs, metals, gold from Thrace, purple dyes from Phoenicia, hides from Syria, and wheat from Egypt and Scythia.”

From the coasts of the Black Sea came ship timber, salted fish, honey, wax, pitch, tackling and cordage for vessels, leather, and goatskins. From Phrygia and Miletus, fine wool and carpets. From Etruria, boots and bronzes. From Arabia, perfumes. And “all the sweet productions” of Sicily, Italy, Cyprus, Lydia, Pontus, and Peloponnesus found their way to Piraeus, wrote Augustus Boeckh in 1857 in Public Economy of the Athenians. Athenian coins (drachmas, 65 grains fine silver) wound up as far away as India and northern Europe.

Now, trade in all of these commodities required property rights. Each item had to be owned by somebody, and other people had to recognize that ownership and exchange their own property right to their commodities (or money) in return. And this was true long before our Greek example.

Eight centuries earlier, by 1250 B.C., the Phoenicians, the most expert navigators of the ancient world, were the major traders throughout the Mediterranean and traveled to the edges of the known world. They were famous for their ivory carving, silverwork, and the manufacture of glass and fine fabrics, which were especially admired for their “Tyrian purple” dye.

Property rights were essential not only to trading but to the division of labor. Unless one had a property right to what he could produce by and for himself, a division of labor—with all the complexities and economic efficiencies it brought for the advancement of civilization—could not have arisen. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how society could have advanced beyond the simplest tribal level without developing a division of labor.

Trade brought not only economic wealth but another type of wealth: ideas. The Phoenicians carried their alphabet wherever they went. To them it was merely a convenience for record keeping, but it shaped literature, learning and science of the Western World. Their alphabet, which used symbols for sounds instead of hieroglyphs or cuneiform was a tremendous advance. In addition to adopting the Phoenician alphabet, the Greeks adopted Mesopotamian weights and measures, the lunisolar calendar, and architectural techniques, which aided the progress of Greek civilization.

There is evidence of property rights thousands of years earlier than our examples of the Greeks and the Phoenicians. From prehistoric times, trade existed across the Sahara desert, a terrain worth crossing only in circumstances for exceptional gain. By the end of the 7th millennium B.C., Egyptians had imported goats and sheep from southwest Asia. Foreign artifacts in Egypt indicate trading with Syria in the 5th millennium B.C. By the 4th millennium B.C., trading was established with Nubia to the south and with cultures along the eastern Mediterranean.

By the middle of the 4th millennium B.C., lapis lazuli was being traded from its only known source in the ancient world, northeastern Afghanistan, as far as Egypt and Mesopotamia. By the third millennium B.C., it was being traded in the Mohenjo-Daro civilization in the Indus valley of India.

In the sixth century B.C., the Chinese were trading salt, iron, fish, cattle and silk, which could end up as far away as Greece. The Chinese also were trading with people in India, where they could obtain coral, jade, glass and pearls. In the third century B.C., the extensive silk trade that developed during the Han dynasty led to the famous Silk Road, a 4,000-mile transcontinental network that connected earlier routes that had been in existence for centuries. This greatly facilitated trading not only in silk but in slaves, satin, perfumes, spices and jewels.

Now we have elected to the presidency of the United States an economic primitive, who is “fundamentally restructuring” America in a way that is contrary to the process of economic progress that has been advancing civilization for thousands of years. He has shown little understanding of property rights and certainly no respect for them. His agenda is a negation of them, rooted in collectivism at the tribal level.

Throughout history, men have always made trades for their own self-interest. They sought deals that brought them things of greater value than what they were giving up in return. In a trade of, say, a vase for a goatskin, each man considered the other's commodity of greater value than his own; otherwise there would be no trade. The man trading the vase may have come from an area where people did not raise goats but were very skilled at making vases. The man who traded the goatskin may have come from an area that lacked suitable clay for vases. The trade was a “win-win” situation. The same was true if a man used money as an intermediary, exchanging his vase for money now and then using the money to buy a goatskin or something else later.

Nobody was forced to trade for what he would regard as a loss—or even for less gain than he could obtain elsewhere. Maybe one man traded a vase for a goatskin but another decided he would be better off by trading his for salted fish or wheat or perhaps simply for money to be saved for a future purchase. Trades were made on an individual—not collective—basis, with each man tailoring his trading for the greatest value to himself, given his own circumstances, needs and desires. When everyone traded to get the most for his money (or vases or goats etc.), society prospered. No chief or king could have created a more prosperous system. He simply couldn't have decided the terms of countless trades by thousands of individuals that would have been more beneficial than what they determined for themselves.

Obamacare would reverse or negate every aspect of the process history has shown to be essential to successful commerce and human advancement. It begins by regarding the wealth of private citizens as a collective resource, as though its disposition is to be determined by the wishes of a collective ruler—a tribal chief or king—rather than by the individual choices of the people. It requires negating their property rights rather than utilizing them. In the name of the collective good of society, it forces people to make transactions for the benefit of others—those without health insurance—instead of one's own self-interest. Since this necessitates losses, the system is a series of “lose-win” transactions, which cannot match the “win-win” of free trade. In this, the most advanced, complex economy the world has ever seen, Obamacare mandates uniform compliance for the entire population, regardless of the vast differences in people's circumstances, needs and desires. Can this possibly result in lower health care costs as Obama claims? How can this 2,700-page bill—which few if any legislator read—produce greater efficiency than the market choices of people exercising their rights to liberty and property?

The underlying message of this legislation is that force is superior to freedom, collectivism is superior to the individual choices of capitalism, and Washington politicians can act more wisely than the system that created America's greatness, which they are helping to destroy. This is legislation that turns the function of government on its head, from protecting people's rights to violating them under the seductive slogan of a right to health insurance and health care at others' expense. This is what Obama's phrase “change you can believe in” really means. Obamacare is a victory for envy and tyranny over the experience of history, liberty and property rights.

Obamacare will have adverse effects far beyond the health care system. It will negatively impact the entire U.S. economy and thus further weaken the dollar, already in decline from decades of inflation. The last restraint on U.S. debasement of the dollar was its last link to gold, the provision allowing foreign central banks to redeem dollars for gold, which President Nixon ended on August 15, 1971.

As Professor Rougier pointed out, Athens success was due “first and foremost, to the scrupulous respect given to private property” but “almost equally due to a strong monetary discipline.” Obama is at least as ignorant of the importance of the second as he is of the first. His colossal spending programs will only accelerate the dollar's downward spiral and lead to its abandonment as a reserve currency in the international monetary system.

Under the 1944 Bretton-Woods agreement, countries could hold their monetary reserves in either gold or dollars, with only the U.S. required to maintain convertibility of dollars for gold. When Nixon abandoned this gold link, the dollar still remained as a reserve currency for other countries.

The dollar's instability was becoming increasingly dangerous to international trade even before the Obama administration and the Fed began flushing billions of dollars into bailouts and stimulus programs. The instability led to attempts to offset monetary uncertainty with derivatives, which played a part in the current economic downturn. Economist Judy Shelton noted: “The total outstanding amount of financial derivatives, according to the Bank for International Settlements, is $684 trillion (as of June 2008)—over 12 times the world's gross domestic product. Derivatives make it possible to place bets on future monetary policy or exchange-rate movements. More than 66 percent of those financial derivatives are interest-rate contracts: swaps or forward-rate agreements. Another 9 percent are foreign exchange contracts. In other words, some three-quarters of the massive derivatives market, which has wreaked the most havoc across global financial markets, derives from the capricious monetary policies of central banks and the chaotic movements of currencies.”

Foreign countries are becoming increasingly fearful of holding their monetary reserves in dollars that are continuing to lose value because of U.S. policies. In recent months, the leaders of France, China and Russia, in addition to a committee of the United Nations, have called for replacing the dollar as a reserve currency. Obamacare and the rest of the President's spendthrift policies will only accelerate the day of reckoning, which will reduce not only the value of the dollar internationally but reduce the buying power of the dollars Americans have saved.

Gold has a long history as an indispensable standard for international trade. In Money and Man, Elgin Groseclose noted that in the sixth century A.D., Cosmas Indicopleustes, a noted Egyptian traveler, wrote: “It is with their gold piece [the bezant of Constantinople] that all nations do trade; it is received everywhere from one end of the earth to the other.”

Jack Weatherford writes in The History of Money that “a reasonably healthy system of coinage continued to operate in the eastern Mediterranean under the aegis of the Byzantine emperors at Constantinople,” but in Rome the process of decay was well underway before the end of the third century. “Step by step, the imperial government took over the direct administration of the economy and crowded out the small, independent merchants, landowners, manufactures, and entrepreneurs....An increasingly greater portion of the economy fell under direct control of the bureaucracy, which consumed ever more of the national output of agricultural and manufactured goods.”

With the collapse of the Roman empire, “the classical money economy that had survived for barely a thousand years also collapsed. So completely had the Roman economy deteriorated that almost a thousand years would pass before the money economy returned to full force.”

Then in 1252 A.D., after a long period of monetary disarray, the city-state of Florence reintroduced gold coins, florins, leading the western nations back to gold. Genoa quickly followed. In 1254 Louis IX of France commenced gold coinage. Some thirty years later Venice joined in. In 1328, Germany began minting the Bavarian, which closely imitated the florin. One by one, these and other countries countries turned to gold when they realized the monetary stability it provided was beneficial to trade and prosperity. With today's massive international trade from a globalization trend that shows no signs of stopping, where monetary stability is needed more than ever, and where government policies are creating monetary crises with worldwide consequences, such a day will surely come again.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Fluorescent Foolishness

The familiar incandescent light bulb is on its way out, to be replaced by compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. The federal requirement for the changeover will be phased-in starting in 2012 and completed in 2014. Some states have set earlier deadlines.

Does snuffing out usage of Thomas Edison's invention really demonstrate the politicians have a brighter idea than what consumers choose in the marketplace? The propaganda that attempts to show this is the case omits important facts about costs, the bulbs themselves, ultraviolet damage, environmental issues, convenience, and—most important—safety.

The main argument in favor of CFLs is that, although they cost much more, they use less energy and will last longer. A recent column in the Minneapolis Star Tribune quoted figures from a Minnesota Department of Energy specialist of local retail costs of 74 cents for a standard 60-watt 1,000-hour rated incandescent bulb and $1.46 for an equivalent CFL bulb. But I checked the three locations I could buy them closest to my home, two major supermarket chains and Home Depot, all having many locations throughout the Twin City area. The average cost of a 60-watt incandescent 1,000 hour bulb was 31 cents. Thus the government's 74 cent figure is 124 percent higher than what is easily available in the Twin Cities. The cheapest available comparable CFL was twice the cost quoted by the government specialist. Realistic bulb prices invalidate the extravagant claims made about the cost savings from CFLs.

Incidentally, while I was at Home Depot, I picked up a dozen 100-watt incandescents for 10 cents apiece! This was not a special sale price, simply the regular price for a twelve-pack of 2,000-hour rated bulbs. Beats the hell out of CFLs.

Significantly, every CFL I looked at came with a warning: “Do not use with emergency light fixtures, emergency lights, dimmers, photo controls or timers.” So when incandescent bulbs are no longer available, thanks to the “wisdom” of legislators, emergency lights and emergency lighting fixtures will not be illuminated, with obvious detriment to people's safety.

Dimmers can survive because of special CFLs, but the costs involved are never considered in the comparisons that trumpet the cost savings of CFLs. Home Depot sells a dimmable 60-watt equivalent (13-watt) CFL for $8.47. One supermarket offered a 100-watt equivalent dimmable for $9.99; (it had no 13-watt CFL dimmable), and the other had no dimmables. Also omitted is the energy efficiency of dimmers although that is a major reason for dimmers in the first place. And no value is assigned to the consumers preference for the lighting effects of dimmers. The lawmakers “know” that saving a few pennies is more important for you than satisfaction with your lighting, whether you know it or not.

Early claims of the energy efficiency of CFLs turned out to be false. They never lived up to the life span for which they were rated because those ratings were based on the the bulbs being on continuously for four hours per day. In actual use, bulbs are turned on and off frequently, which shortens their life. Each start slightly erodes the electron-emitting surface of the cathodes. When that's gone, the lamp won't start.

CFL packaging now states that the rating life depends on “normal”, “reasonable” or “average” use, with no information on the number or length of short “on” times or the number of start cycles the bulb should provide. A study by H. Sterling Burnett, Senior Fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis, and co-author Amanda Berg concludes: “Applications in which lighting is used only briefly (such as closets, bathrooms, motion detectors and so forth) will cause CFL bulbs to burn out as quickly as regular incandescent bulbs.” In extreme situations, incandescent bulbs can actually be more energy efficient. EPA recommends that CFLs be left on for over 15 minutes every time they are turned on in order to minimize the shortening of bulb life.

The U.S. Department of Energy found that CFLs often grow dimmer over time. It found that after only 40 percent of their rated service life, one-fourth of CFLs no longer produced the full amount of light. So the consumer gets less light than he expected, and the energy efficiency drops, too.

When a CFL is switched on, it provides as little as half of its rated output and can take up to three minutes to reach efficient operation, though the observer will not notice the difference. So all those short on-and-off periods include operating the bulbs at far less than the efficiency claimed for them.

Incandescent lighting is often preferred because of its warmer light compared to fluorescents, which are markedly cooler (whiter). Now, however, warmer shades of light are available from fluorescents thanks to an array of phosphor blends. But these reduce energy efficiency and shorten the CFL's lifespan.

Also, screwing CFLs into sockets where heat is prone to build up, as in enclosed fixtures, can greatly shorten their lives. Here's a description from Investigate Magazine: “Unlike a normal bulb, which screws into the ceiling and hangs down, CFL lights actually work best (and are lab tested this way) pointing up, not down. That's because the 'ballast', the unit at the base of the light, contains complex electronic components that normal light bulbs don't have. When CFLs hang down, particularly the 100 watt equivalents or greater, the heat generated in the bulb travels back up to the base and slowly fries the electronics, bringing on early failure and/or physical burnout.”

CFLs often don't fit existing light fixtures, such as small-base lamps, candelabras and chandeliers, which will have to be replaced. But the costs of replacements are not included in the calculations that CFLs will save money. Say goodbye to those candelabras—even the expensive ones—as well as the aesthetic satisfaction they may give. That counts for zero in the government's calculations.

CFLs also have important limitations. Vibration can cause them to fail, meaning they should not be used with ceiling fans or garage door openers. Special bulbs may be available for such purposes (I did not find them in the stores I visited), but again they are more expensive and their costs are not included in the comparisons with incandescents. And the federal law has had to make exceptions for appliance bulbs for ovens and refrigerators, colored lights, traffic signals, and three-way bulbs, making bulb-buying more complicated, irritating, and less efficient.

CFLs also will not operate at low temperatures, making them unsuitable for outdoor applications. Most say so right on the packaging. Safety experts say outdoor lighting is one of the most effective steps a person can take for home or business security, and motion detector lights have grown increasingly popular. So here, again, legislating incandescents out of existence will decrease safety. The same will be true of the disappearance of timers, which many people use to turn lights on and off when they are away, giving the appearance of someone being home and thereby discouraging break-ins.

Claims of energy efficiency for CFLs are based only on their operational efficiency while conveniently neglecting that they consume more energy to manufacture, ship and store than incandescent bulbs. Dutch researchers at the Technical University of Denmark concluded that a CFL takes 5.7 times as much energy to manufacture as an incandescent. ( They did conclude that in spite of this the CFLs were more energy efficient to operate than incandescents—but this was based on the CFLs emitting their maximum light for the entire 8,000 hours. We have already shown this is does not happen for several reasons, none of which was included by these researchers.

Also, in May 2007 General Electric said it would offer incandescent bulbs in 2010 twice as efficient as those currently sold and four times as efficient by 2012 The first part has already proven true since I saw 60-watt bulbs for 57 cents from GE at Home Depot that had a 2,000- hour rating, and I bought 100-watt bulbs there with 2,000-hour rating.

CFLs that cost money and energy to manufacture but fail quickly certainly reinforce the conclusion that, overall, CFLs are less energy efficient than incandescents. Karen Zuercher and her husband, inspired by the movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” swapped nearly all the old bulbs in their home for CFLs. “Here's my sad collection of bulbs that didn't work,” she said, showing a reporter a box of sixteen failed bulbs that should have lasted for years. One did not work at all, and three others failed within hours, according to the New York Times, “Do New Bulbs Save Energy if They Don't Work?” March 28, 2009. Reliability has never been a problem with incandescents.

Consumers are supposed to be protected now by buying CFLs certified by the government's Energy Star program, a regulatory measure never needed before and one that has certainly proved a failure here. “In pursuit of the holy grail, we stepped on the consumer,” said Michael Siminovitch, director of a lighting center at the University of California. “The standard essentially establishes a floor [for CFLs], which sorts out the junk, with the expectation that the rest is good. It's not.”

How about shipping? Reducing the use of fossil fuels and lowering carbon dioxide emissions are given as reasons, besides cost, for switching to CFLs. But at least 80 percent of the CFLs are produced in China, with India in second place by a wide margin over any other country. Why is it that those who champion CFLs as a “green” solution for saving energy never consider the fossil fuel energy required to ship them 8,000 miles from China across the ocean to the U.S.?

The advocates of CFLs complain that 90 percent of the energy from incandescents is wasted because it is given off as heat while only 10 percent gives illumination. It seems to have eluded these people that the heat can be a resource to be utilized, rather than wasted.

About 4 pm on February 27, 2009, my furnace broke down. I immediately called the gas company but was told it was too late to send a repairman out that day and I'd have to wait until tomorrow. I asked if there wasn't some way to get my furnace fixed on an emergency basis since I had no other source of heat and below zero temperatures were forecast for the night. My call was switched to a tech expert who told me there was nothing they could do but that I should go out and buy one or two electric space heaters just for the night. He said there was a danger of my pipes freezing because of the very cold weather that was coming. He emphasized that I should buy at least one such heater.

I decided this was an opportunity for an experiment. Rather than spend the money for an electric heater I would use once and probably never again, I simply turned on all the lights in my house and left them on all night. I have plenty of warm clothes and blankets, and my home, though an older one, is quite well insulated. When my furnace went out, the temperature in my house was 70 degrees. At eight o'clock the next morning, the temperature outside was officially zero degrees, but in my house it was 64 degrees.

It may be argued that although the heat from incandescent bulbs is beneficial in the winter, it will be offset by higher air conditioning costs in the summer. That's certainly not true where I live. At my home in Minnesota, my heating costs over the winter are consistently a multiple of my air conditioning costs in the summer. In fact, my heating cost for a single winter month can easily exceed my total electric bills for the entire summer, including electricity used for purposes other than air conditioning.

A study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy states: “The heat of incandescent lights — more than 341 Btu per bulb per hour — can help to warm a room. Therefore, if the cost of electricity is low relative to the cost of home heating fuel, there may be an economic case for changing to incandescent bulbs in colder seasons.”

Vu1 is a high-tech lighting company that was contacted by two museums concerned about the damaging effects to their exhibits from ultraviolet (UV) light emitted by CFLs. “The [art] museum cannot use CFLs due to the UV risk and they said they hated the light quality of LED bulbs. They are being mandated to install energy efficient lighting but feel they have no options with existing technologies.” ( If museums are concerned about damage to their pictures from CFLs, shouldn't people be concerned about the same effects on the artwork and upholstery in their homes? Here are statements from various sources supporting the damaging effects of UV:

“Fluorescent lamps emit a high concentration of UV rays, which can cause significant damage to many types of artworks. Over time, UV rays emitted by fluorescent lighting fixtures can break down the pigments in both oil and acrylic paints, causing the colors to appear washed out. Fabrics are also susceptible to damage from UV rays. After significant exposure to fluorescent lighting, fabric dyes can appear washed out. UV rays can even weaken fabric fibers.” (

“Use incandescent bulbs to light your work. Incandescent lights have only 4% of their rays in the damaging UV range. Fluorescent lights, on the other hand, have a high concentration of UV rays and should not be used to light your work. (Italics in the original.) (

“Fluorescent light, because of the amount of ultraviolet energy it transmits, ranks next to sunlight as a source of damage to art work.” (

“All forms of light are damaging to photographic prints and negatives and exposure should be moderated. The ultra-violet radiation from unfiltered sunlight and fluorescent lights are often the most harmful, but damage from these sources can be reduced with UV-absorbing sleeves over the windows and fluorescent tubes, and UV-filtered glazing over the photograph.... Black & White images tend to deteriorate less quickly than color photographs, but all images will fade with prolonged exposure. (

“UV damages finishes and fabrics. For example, a CFL’s UV emissions from a decorative table lamp can cause irreversible light damage to a wooden table finish in less than 12 months. The same UV also accelerates discoloration of fine fabric lamp shades, art objects, and furniture.” (

Here's this, too, from the Vu1 website: “Also interesting is the impact of UV light on plastics. Unfortunately, many light fixtures and lamp shades are made of—or incorporate—plastics. UV has a tendency to attack plastic.” Accompanying this text is a picture of a premium lampshade that covered a CFL for 24 months. The plastic liner of the shade was discolored, brittle and shattered in several places. The text ends: “Stay tuned for many more damaged fixtures and lamp shades as the use of CFLs become more common.” Shouldn't UV damage be factored into all those claims that CFLs will save you money?

In February 2009, only weeks after President Obama took office, his administration reversed years of U.S. policy by calling for a treaty to cut mercury pollution, which it described as the world's gravest chemical problem. Meanwhile the federal government, as well as various states, have laws which will eliminate incandescent light bulbs, forcing people to replace them with fluorescent ones—which contain mercury.

Methyl mercury is a potent neuro-toxin that can cause brain damage and learning disabilities in children and fetuses, and broken CFLs in municipal landfills can potentially leach into the soil. So special measures for the disposal and breakage of the bulbs are needed to guard against the health and environmental dangers from requiring this hazardous material in homes.

When Brandy Bridges accidentally broke a CFL while installing it in her daughter's bedroom, she called the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The DEP sent an inspector to her home, who recommended she call an environmental cleanup firm, which gave her an estimate of $2,000 to clean up the room. Her insurance company would not cover the cost because mercury is a pollutant. Because she wasn't able to pay for the professional cleanup, her daughter's room remained sealed off in plastic for more than a month.

Finding that neither EPA nor anyone else had up to date information and advice, the Maine DEP ran its own experiments. It smashed dozens of CFLs on bare floors and carpeting, carefully monitored the process, evaluated a variety of measures for cleaning up the debris, and issued a shocking 160 page report. It clarified the often-cited claim that CFLs contain only 5 mg of mercury; it found that was only an average and that the bulbs could contain more than 3 times that amount, the range being. 0.9 to 18 mg.

Regarding the release of mercury vapor from breakage of a CFL, the report states: “Mercury concentration in the study room air often exceeds the Maine Ambient Air Guideline (MAAG) of 300 nanograms per cubic meter (ng/m3) for some period of time, with short excursions over 25,000 ng/m3, sometimes over 50,000 ng/m3, and possibly over 100,000 ng/m3 from the breakage of a single compact fluorescent lamp." That's more than 300 times what is considered safe.

DEP scientists found that mercury contamination in the bedroom of Brandy Bridges house was still as high as 2,000 ng/m3 three months after the accident, despite the fact that all cleanup recommendations were followed. In the end, the DEP ripped up the carpet and disposed of it as toxic waste.

The MAAG limit of 300 ng/m3 is identical to the EPA reference concentration, which is the maximum allowable daily limit for the sake of legislation. It is based on various occupational studies of adults where tremor, fine motor deficits, electroencephalography (EEG) and autonomic nervous system abnormalities, and cognitive deficits were observed. This may not be sufficient to protect small children. The DEP report states: “Mercury exposures have serious impacts on fetal and infant brain development. Elemental mercury can cross the placenta from a mother to fetus. For these reasons, acute peaks could be particularly problematic during pregnancy. Infants and toddlers have much more vulnerable brains....[M]ethylmercury exposure can produce devastating effects in the fetus, including cerebral palsy, blindness, deafness, and even death, while producing no or minimal effects in the mother....

"Neurotoxicants identified in adults may have different and more severe effects in developing organisms. Infants and toddlers also have a much higher rate of respiration than adults. Therefore they have a higher exposure to similar concentrations. They also are lower to the floor and therefore closer to the source of the exposure and presumably more apt to obtain a concentrated dose of mercury.

"Elderly and unhealthy individuals may already be at compromised health and be more susceptible to mercury effects than a healthy individual. For example, mercury does kidney damage which could exacerbate an already existing kidney disease."

Although the DEP advised Brandy Bridges NOT to clean up the broken CFL herself and instead hire a professional, its website now offers do-it-yourself advice that is certainly bothersome—if not downright alarming. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers even more extensive instructions:

"Never use a vacuum cleaner to clean up mercury... The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase exposure.

"Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller droplets and spread them.

"Never pour mercury down a drain. It may lodge in the plumbing and cause future problems during plumbing repairs. If discharged, it can cause pollution of the septic tank or sewage treatment plant.

"Never wash clothing or other items that have come in direct contact with mercury in a washing machine, because mercury may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage. Clothing that has come into direct contact with mercury should be discarded.

"You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, like the clothing you happened to be wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.

"Never walk around if your shoes might be contaminated with mercury. Contaminated clothing can also spread mercury around.

"Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room
"Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.

"Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

"Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

"Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces

"Carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.

"Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.

"Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.

"Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug

"Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.

"Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.

"If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.

"Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

"Disposal of Clean-up Materials

"Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.

"Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.

"Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

"Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug:Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming

"The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.

"Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed."

Nearly everyone who would read the above requirements would conclude CFLs are not worthwhile. Why run the risk of having to perform the time consuming and exacting process of having to clean up a broken one? Plus there's the risk of not following all the steps precisely and perhaps contaminating one's home. Will you remember to shut off your heating/air conditioning and open a window the next few times you vacuum? Who wants to bother with that—or even to think about it? Even if there were a cost saving to CFLs, most people would probably gladly pay far more to avoid not just the risk of having to comply with the clean-up requirements but even the time spent to read them. The consumer's time is worth nothing to the advocates of CFLs. Neither is convenience.

The Maine DEP study is believed to be the first of its kind. EPA says it intends to make similar studies of its own but in the meantime has reviewed the Maine study and adjusted its own recommendations accordingly. Its website was last updated December 2, 2009, but it still does not take into account some findings of the DEP study published 22 months earlier. For example, EPA recommends putting the debris in a jar or sealed plastic bag, but the DEP report says mercury migrates easily through plastic bags: “Within an hour of placing the double re-sealable bag in the test room, mercury vapor concentrations climbed above the MAAG at the adult breathing zone.”

EPA says after all visible materials are removed, you can vacuum the area where the bulb was broken. But the DEP report stated: “With one vacuum where a break had occurred on carpeting and been cleaned up three weeks prior to vacuuming, the [vacuum] beaters initially were contaminated at greater than 50,000 ng/m3.” The report also stated “decontaminating the vacuum is difficult to impossible even when the researchers had the advantage of sophisticated instruments to determine where the contamination was present.”

Vacuuming can contaminate the room, too, even weeks after cleanup, says DEP. “The carpet was vacuumed in an unvented room to simulate a likely homeowner scenario. A homeowner would not be likely to open a window prior to vacuuming when the breakage occurred [and was properly cleaned up] three weeks earlier. When vacuumed, the mercury source in the carpet caused the room to exceed the MAAG at both the infant/toddler breathing zone [height of 1 foot] and the adult breathing zone[height of 5 feet.]”

The DEP report suggests “homeowners consider not utilizing fluorescent lamps in situations where they could easily be broken, in bedrooms used by infants, small children, or pregnant women, or over carpets in rooms frequented by infants, small children and pregnant women.” But EPA—which supports CFLs—makes no such suggestion. Perhaps it is looking ahead to when there will be no alternative to fluorescents.

EPA makes no mention of removing carpeting, but the DEP report suggests “homeowners consider removal of the area of carpet where the breakage occurred as a precaution, particularly in homes with infants, small children or pregnant women.” Of course, those costs are not factored into the claims of all the money you will save by using CFLs.

There are additional financial costs from CFLs that are not included either. EPA notes that some states prohibit CFLs in normal trash disposal and require all CFLS, broken or not, be taken to a recycling center. Shouldn't trips to the recycling center be included in the cost of CFLs? And it's not just the cost of the trip but, again, a person's time and the inconvenience that is not considered. Of course, the trips burn fossil fuel, too. You don't have to take incandescents to a recycling center. Just toss them in the trash. No mess, no fuss, no environmental damage, no regulations to read, no special disposal costs, no danger to your home, health or family, and none of the inconvenience of CFLs.

There are also wider costs from CFLs which are not included in claims of their cost savings. How about the cost of the recycling centers, the salaries of the personnel to run them, and the cost of operations (e.g., lighting, vehicles, equipment, etc.), plus the cost of buying land for the disposal sites and the testing, design and construction procedures needed to protect against contamination of the soil and ground water? How about the cost of writing the regulations, providing the Energy Star ratings, and the DEP testing of dozens of smashed CFLs and writing its 160-page report?—jobs that aren't needed with incandescent bulbs.

Only about 25 percent of all fluorescent bulbs are recycled, according to Paul Abernathy, executive director of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers. Undoubtedly many are put in trash even where doing so is illegal. (How could such laws be enforced short of the astronomical expense of inspecting everyone's trash?) Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins University, is concerned about the environmental impact if millions of these bulbs end up in landfills. She says, “I don't think anybody has really grappled with this.” Certainly not the politicians and other promoters of CFLs. And 50 to 80 percent of all electronic trash goes to recyclers in developing countries, especially China. This does not alleviate mercury pollution of the planet, merely transfers it overseas. As of 2008, the latest date available, there were little more than two dozen licensed facilities in the U.S. for processing mercury waste.

The CFL fiasco is yet another example of what the Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek called “the fatal conceit.” It is the idea that people in government possess superior knowledge and can compel behavior that is more beneficial to society than the market choices of free people. It is clear that incandescent bulbs are superior in terms of cost, reliability, convenience, safety and environmental effects. It is equally clear that the legislators voting to ban incandescents, far from possessing superior knowledge, had a thorough ignorance of just about all aspects of the issue. It can be said that consumers, too, were ignorant of many aspects of the bulbs—but this is one of the beauties of the free market: even without specific knowledge of the aspects we've explained, people's market choices for their own self-interest automatically lead them to the betterment of society, including the environment, as a consequence. Adam Smith's “invisible hand” really works. More than two centuries ago he wrote that a man's pursuit of his own self interest “naturally, or rather necessarily leads him to prefer that...which is most advantageous to society.” The price that people choose to pay for an item in a free market reflects the best value for all the costs and benefits associated with that product, whether they are deliberately evaluated and chosen or not. People are led as if by an “invisible hand” to advance society in ways which they do not intend or understand.

In a free market, people are always adjusting to changing conditions, better prices, new information, product improvements and radically new innovations. No supervision from government is required—and, in fact, would be an obstacle. Kodachrome, a venerable product for three-quarters of a century, disappeared from the market this past year. It wasn't legislated out of existence; it simply disappeared because consumers found superior substitutes. The advent of CDs led to the disappearance of long-playing vinyl records without any government laws. Color television replaced the old black-and-white sets because people found them superior, not because government forced people to buy them. Cell phones became popular because people preferred them, not because government decided they should have them. Microsoft has no problem selling new versions of its Windows software because buyers—not government—decide they are worth buying. There are countless other examples. If CFLs were truly a superior product, they would be widely accepted by consumers without making them mandatory—and without false claims about their virtues.

NOTE: For a follow-up to this article, click here