The stupidity of politics: Green fables, jobs, and the incandescent bulb

posted at 8:37 pm on September 8, 2010 by J.E. Dyer

Hot Air’s headlines linked a Washington Post piece today on the closing of the last US manufacturing plant for the humble incandescent light bulb.  The article’s focus is on the “irony” of US engineers having come up with the compact-fluorescent lightbulb (CFL), as well as the way to manufacture it efficiently, but the actual manufacturing jobs – which are labor-intensive – having migrated overseas.

Of course, only if you’re a Washington Post writer does it seem ironic to you that manufacturers move their plants to where taxes are lower and all employer costs cheaper.  But the article has other unintended ironies – or, at least, fatuous and utterly unexamined statements.  The most important one occurs in paragraph 6, near the beginning, and it comes in for critical scrutiny not at all.  In fact, it’s expressed in vague, impressionistic terms that ought to get a journalist horsewhipped by a serious editor.  Here’s what WaPo tells us about the US decision to force the phase-out of the incandescent bulb:

The resulting savings in energy and greenhouse-gas emissions are expected to be immense.

Savor that for a moment.  These 14 words are the sum total of the justification offered in the WaPo narrative for all the economic perturbation the story then proceeds to describe.  The climax of the tale is a bunch of Americans losing their manufacturing jobs, as a whole industry is reorganized and transformed.  But WaPo’s writers examine everything about this story except the original reasoning for the political decision.

We are left to wonder what exactly “immense” means, savings-wise.  One almost begins to suspect, given the fleeting nature of the allusion to it, that we’re not supposed to wonder.  But wonder we must, if our minds are unruly:  when it comes to immensity, there’s no hint of a definition or supporting documentation.

Fortunately, there is always the online web search.  Here’s what I unearthed:

1. The common figure used to predict carbon-emission savings, if every household in America switches from incandescent bulbs to CFLs, is 90 billion pounds per year.  This is a narrow, first-order assessment: it doesn’t take into account the life-cycle differences there may be in the carbon footprints of incandescent bulbs versus CFLs, in terms of what it takes to manufacture or dispose of them.  It considers the reduction in carbon emissions incident to household lighting use.  This estimate does not consider savings from businesses and public installations converting to CFLs, which would presumably increase the number by as much as 100%.  We’ll look only at the household number, however.  For ease of comparison, we can convert it to 45 million tons of carbon per year.

2.  The total amount of carbon in the earth’s atmosphere is, on average, about 720 billion tons.

3.  Humans now contribute 6-7 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere per year.

4.  As the spirited reader discussion at the link above highlights, numbers for “carbon” are smaller than numbers for the compound “carbon dioxide.”  It must also be pointed out that there is a difference between the American (short) ton of 2000 pounds and the metric ton (or tonne) of 2204 pounds, or 1000 kilos.  I have taken “ton” at face value and assumed it to mean the American short ton wherever I found it, while assuming tonne means metric ton.  But if you want to convert everything to metric tons, please do.  Meanwhile, those who prefer to deal in tons of the compound (CO2) can multiple the carbon numbers by a factor of 3.66.  Doing that does produce figures that are even more immense.

6.  Given the immensity of the numbers involved, it’s unlikely that picking one standard over another will seriously misrepresent the climax that readers know we’re building toward here.  The mathematically-inclined have already noted that 45 million is, frankly, way smaller than either 720 billion or 6 billion.  We could convert these figures to metric tons or multiply them by 3.66, and the relationship would remain the same.

It turns out that reducing America’s carbon emissions by 45 million tons per year amounts to a reduction of 0.75% from the lower global emissions figure of 6 billion tons.  It’s a reduction of 0.64% from 7 billion tons.  And it represents 0.006% of the total carbon routinely present in the atmosphere.

7.  “Immense” is a relative characterization.  45 million is a big number, and is especially impressive when it’s written out with a lot of zeros:  45,000,000.  90 billon – or 90,000,000,000 – is even more impressive; but of course, it describes the same weight as 45 million if you change the unit of measurement.  Immense, however, in this case means “fart in a thunderstorm.”  Double the 45 million to 90 million, to include emission savings for industry and public installations, and you have a slightly bigger fart in a thunderstorm.

So, for the sake of a fart in a thunderstorm, the bulb-makers of Winchester, Virginia are this month joining the other Americans who have lost their bulb-making jobs.  The free market never produces this kind of result.  It takes politics to do this to people.  The lesson in politics is beautifully simple:  take a questionable premise; steep it in demagoguery and make unthinking adherence to it a litmus test; assert it repeatedly – preferably using impressive but unparsable adjectives – as established fact; and then, when you’ve killed people’s jobs by acting urgently on your unexamined premise, send Washington Post reporters to write a solicitous puff piece on how sad and ironic it is for them.

Cross-posted at The Optimistic Conservative.

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