13 April 2011

Weak Hooks and Dim Bulbs

Rand Paul's invocation of Ayn Rand yesterday to complain about government technology standards for light bulb performance gives me an opportunity to raise a few questions.

If the government can mandate technology performance standards for fishing hooks, then why not light bulbs, or any other technology for that matter?  I can understand that people may wish to debate the substance of technology standards or whether they are necessary in particular cases.  What I don't get are arguments like Paul's that suggest that such standard setting is somehow illegitimate. There is really no legal or policy basis for such views, and while espousing such views may appeal to populist sentiment, they actually undercut the ability of the government to govern, which I suppose may be the point.

And this makes me wonder, why aren't those who complain about light bulbs on the warpath against "weak hooks"?


  1. The fishing hooks are to solve an externality, which could arguably be solved by other means (i.e. monitoring of number of turtles killed).

    There's no such externality closely related to incandescent lights. If energy doesn't correctly price in the externalities, that's a problem with energy policy, not with the particular manner people tend to over-consume energy.

    There is a legal basis for the distinction as well -- sea fishing is inherently interstate or international, and so it's a role of the federal government. A light bulb may never cross state lines.

    If the federal government can legitimately regulate the type of lightbulbs I use, can they fine me for failing to turn out the lights when I leave the room? They are both equivalent distance from what the US has a legitimate role in regulating -- the externalities related to energy production.

  2. -1-Kevin

    Let's use the economic framework you suggest to discuss.

    Why do you say that there are no externalities in the case of lightbulbs?

    Why do you ascribe the light bulb issue to "energy policy" but not the fishing issue to "fishing policy"? I can change your sentence to:

    "If the fish market doesn't correctly price in the externalities, that's a problem with fish policy, not with the particular manner people tend to over-consume fish."

    The appeal to interstate transport is pretty thin ;-)

    Your last example raises some interesting questions, but pretty far afield from technology standards.

  3. And this makes me wonder, why aren't those who complain about light bulbs on the warpath against "weak hooks"?

    We might be if we all fished...but we don't.

    Whether or not the government can regulate a what kind of light bulbs I use in my domicile is for lawyers to decide.

    Whether or not government should regulate light bulbs is for people that vote to decide.

    In a libertarian society government regulation should be a 'last resort'.

    The 'good idea' standard proposed by many is scary as it holds value judgments.

    I'm quite comfortable without Air Conditioning up to about 95 degrees F.

    Boulder Colorado doesn't have many 95 degree+ days. At least not during school term.

    Oh look, a plan for renovation at the University of Colorado Boulder?
    Chief among those improvements is the addition of air conditioning

    The students and faculty at the University of Colorado at Boulder don't need Air Conditioning any more then I need incandescent lighting.

    Maybe the best policy is for the students and faculty of the University of Colorado at Boulder to decide whether or not they need Air Conditioning and I should be allowed to decided whether or not I need incandescent lights.

  4. Which German standards agency are you referring to Roger? DIN has been around since 1917, and BSI is usually accepted as the first standards body, founded in 1901. The only one Google comes up with for 1887 is your NYT piece.

    The worlds first standard was the Whitworth thread in 1841, as a private sector solution to a market failure.

    UL was founded and thrived as a solution to "The Market for Lemons" problem. Essentially this is what brands did.

    Weights and measures regulations (while very important) were driven by government more out of concern for the treasuries coffers and its ability to collect duty than for consumer rights.

    None of this is to say there is not a place for govt. to set performance goals / standards.
    Where the balance lies is a case by case analogue problem not a digital one.

  5. Roger, the light bulb issue is not a question if we should have standards or not, it's an issue with overreaching standards. I don't see anything in Rand Paul's statement where he says we should do away with all government-mandated quality and performance standards we have in place for manufacture or use of technology.

    The average person can see the advantages of protecting a species, but can also see the ridiculousness of restricting light bulbs based on very vague and vacuous reasoning.

  6. -3-harrywr2

    I usually find your arguments pretty compelling. I suspect that you care as much about light bulb technology as you may about what bit of the spectrum that your cell phone uses. That is to say, you probably care more about light and communication than you do technology details.

    The government has every right to set performance standards for light bulbs, air conditioners and cell phone spectrum. You don't need incandescent lighting you need lighting.


  7. -5-Steve


  8. From your NOAA link:

    “During our tests, we used regular hooks for half our hooks and half were the new weak hooks,” said Capt. Mike Carden, a longline fisherman from Panama City, Fla. who took part in the cooperative research. “We were so happy with the weak hooks we quit using the heavy hooks. The weak hook releases fish we don’t want to catch. Because it’s smaller and lighter, we catch more yellowfin tuna on the weak hook. There’s several of us who have gone to the weak hook.”

    So why do they need a regulation?

  9. "If the government can mandate technology performance standards for fishing hooks, then why not light bulbs, or any other technology for that matter?"

    Except guns. You think there's a tiny exception for guns, because there's a specific amendment in the Bill of Rights that addresses guns.

    But your view of the Commerce Clause is historically farcical. I defy you to find any statements of the Founding Fathers (even including Hamilton) that support your view of the Commerce Clause.

    The fact is that the Commerce Clause was added to the Constitution to address the problem of "the several states" erecting barriers to trade "among the several states." It was not intended to give Congress the power to mandate individual behavior.

    I defy you to provide historical (i.e., in the first ~50 years after the Constitution was ratified) information that you think supports the idea that the federal government has legitimate power to write regulations regarding either light bulbs or fishing hooks.

  10. -7- Roger,

    "The government has every right to set..."

    Really? It has a right? Or it has the ability to do it?

    Sorry, but I actually think this is important in the way we look at government actions. And things like "government rights" seem to toss things like consent of the governed and limited government overboard.

    In a supposedly constitutional republic like the USA, where did this right come from? It's certainly not from the document where the government's power is supposed to be granted, unless you get to where we are today, effectively reading that document and asking yourself what the meaning of "is" is.

    I can say that for one thing, I wasn't aware of the issue of weak hooks at all. Reading that article, it looks like the weak hooks are actually better, since they don't catch fish they don't want. So why does the government need to regulate this again?

    It's true I don't need specifically incandescent lighting. There are a lot of things that could substitute for things I buy. That doesn't mean that the government "has every right" to regulate all of them because it worries some Congress critter or bureaucrat or activist.

  11. -11-markbahner

    Thanks, but we've plowed this ground. Start with McCulloch vs. Maryland, 1819.


  12. -13- Roger,

    RE: McCulluch v Maryland

    I'm not a Constitutional law scholar, but I'm having a hard time figuring out what's "necessary and proper" about telling me which light bulbs (insert penumbra joke) I may not buy or fish hooks I must use.

  13. Roger (#7) -- There's a lot more to it than just lighting. In addition to buying different light bulbs, forcing a shift away from incandescent bulbs probably requires a lot purchases of new lighting fixtures and the work to install them, etc. I don't know exactly what's in the standard, but I have a lot of specialty bulbs with weird sizes and bases in my house. Will I have to replace all those fixtures? I also have a lot of lights on dimmers and some on timers. Those dimmers and timers don't work with CFLs. I haven't looked all that hard yet, but so far I haven't even been able to find dimmers and timers that I can replace them with, which will work with CFLs.

  14. re: humour me

    While I’m tempted to provide a rebuttal, I can’t help feeling like the customer in the Cheese Shop sketch:
    “You haven’t asked me about Limburger, Sir”
    “Is it worth it?”
    “Could be…”


  15. That's a bizarre analogy between light bulbs and fish hooks. As it is, I follow a salt-water fishing forum, and the 'weak hook' topic came up there. Why aren't people complaining about 'weak hooks?' Because as you know, 'people' don't know weak hooks exist. They are to be used by professional fishermen within one regional fishery.

    Now since you obviously know this fact, why did you ask the question "why aren't those who complain about light bulbs on the warpath against "weak hooks" " in the first place? Every adult with a roof over his/her head buys light bulbs.

    The word disingenuous comes to mind. I have to say - I'm most disappointed. We've gone from Honest Broker to garden variety advocate/spin doctor.

  16. Let the government set lighting standards all it wants, but why not let individuals make the choice and even select something that’s “substandard” when it meets a need that’s not rated? The standards are based on energy used for a given output of illumination, but there are other needs that lights fulfill.

    Throughout my house I’ve got the full mix, incandescent, CFL, LED, and halogen; I watch my energy consumption and just had new windows installed at a cost I’ll recover over ten years, if that.

    I have several circuits where my wife and I prefer to have dimmer switches, and the rheostats installed work only with incandescent lights. When you research the manufacturers’ literature you will find that different dimmers are required for the different light technologies, and those for fluorescent, halogen, and LED are around twice the price of the incandescent solution. Why bother, especially when it’s likely that CFL technology will prove short-lived because of the expense, shorter-than-advertised lifespan, and hazards associated with the mercury vapor?

    I have flood lights outside my house and have learned to cope with the slow start up of the CFLs. However, certain light fixtures are two-stage security lights that turn fully when a sensor detects motion at a user-selectable range; the light turns to a dimmer setting after a user-selectable pause. These features work reliably only with incandescent lights, a feature my wife and I appreciate when we pull the car up to the house after dark, put one or more animals outside, or are disturbed by some unknown disturbance that lights up the yard so I can investigate with an unlicensed firearm (this is the South).

    What possible harm does an individual cause by using incandescent lighting? What business does the government have prohibiting the sale of such items?

  17. The EU has set standards, they've banned 100W bulbs (Except for "Rough Service Bulbs", just the same thing, but for use in industry, so householders get around their ban by buying these at DIY stores etc!), they're banning 60W bulbs from September this year and all other incandescent bulbs from September next year.
    So we'll be stuck with CFLs.
    Now, our dear EU masters have also banned Mercury (The element, not the planet)due to its toxicity, shutting down such things as Barometer manufacturing. What do these beloved CFL bulbs contain?
    You've guessed it.
    We've had leaded petrol banned for many years, emission regulations were introduced that not only set limits for CO & hydrocarbons from motor vehicles, but mandated catalytic convertors to achieve these, despite lean-burn engines being able to meet the new limits and use less petrol to do so!
    Needless to say, all these regulations come from the EU and we. the British voters, have no say.

  18. Roger, I think you have a point. There is nothing inherently illegal / immoral about regulating lightbulbs, just as there is nothing wrong with regulating fishing lines.

    However, governments should be very hesitant to regulate inside people's homes. The justification should be incredibly clear and direct. Some examples which have worked well include banning fire places in London homes. It did wonders for the air and people's health. Similarly, requiring trip switches inside the power supply, to avoid serious damage.

    But the link to lightbulbs and externalities is at best tenuous; at worst, completely wrong. In my view, it would be as bad as politicians banning people from smoking in their own homes, on the basis that the next door neighbour might have to breathe second-hand smoke.

  19. -20-Ben M

    Thanks. The state of Colorado in fact both bans wood burning in my home, on certain days, and implements technological performance standards for word burning stoves:


  20. Roger:

    "You don't need incandescent lighting you need lighting."

    Wow, that statement is bottomless. How about:
    You don't need steak, seafood, imported fruit, you need nutritional sustenance.
    You don't need a high-paying, satisfying career, you need gainful employment.
    You don't need a dream home, you need shelter.......

  21. This isn't a question about "technology standards" its a question of politics. There are lots of things government COULD do away with but do not actually. The Feds could try and outlaw every car made before 1995 from the roadways for the stated technical reasons of safety and fuel efficency. They do not try and do so for political reasons. There would be too much of a pushback by the citizenry to make such a policy. Welcome to democracy.

    There is no government held divine right to be exempt from the democratic process even on matters of technological efficiency. (Which is something you certainly imply here.)

    So, while I agree Rand Paul's position comes across as an extreme one... so does yours.

  22. Maybe we should allow the government to tell us we must buy health insurance too....ooops...they did didn't they? :D

  23. You want a better analogy try light bulbs and sockets or plugs. Ever wonder why any bulb you buy fits into the standard socket? Why plugs are standard. Regulations.

  24. Hi Roger

    I think you may misunderstand Mr Paul. He is a strict constitutionalist and a libertarian. The US constitution says:
    "The powers not delegated to the United
    States by the Constitution, nor prohibited
    by it to the States, are reserved to the
    States respectively, or to the people."

    Mr Paul objects to any Federal law that claims a power that is not explicitly granted by the constitution. It is likely (though I don't know for sure) that he would haveless objection to a state or local regulation on light bulbs.

  25. Because a weak hook does not release mercury or hurt the eyes in the home environment?
    This raises interesting questions about priorities and motives.

  26. Isn't this just the "Fallacy of the Pile". lay one piece of straw on teh ground, and then add straw one pice at a time. Eventually there will be a pile of straw. What specific piece of straw changed it from just a bunch of straw to a pile?

    If there is a collection of straw on the ground, how is determined that it is a pile?

    It is accepted that the government legislate to make murder a crime. Doe sit them follow that he government can legislate the colour of eh socks that one wears every day? it does so for prisoners. soldiers, police officers etc.

    The government dictates hair nets for food preparation workers. Can it compel me to wear a cap?

    To me, the question posed in this blog posting is when does a practice change from being of collective/governmental interest to being exclusively personal. The question is ill posed and exhibits the fallacy of the pile. it asks or a specific answer to a question that does not have one.

  27. 13-Roger

    Yes, on the "Like it or not" thread, you referred me to McCulloch v Maryland.

    What you didn't do was to explain how McCulloch v Maryland allows the federal government to regulate light bulbs under the Commerce Clause. Here's a list of Commerce Clause cases:


    Please explain to me which one (within 100 years of the ratification of the Constitution...I'm cutting some more slack here) you think allows the federal government to regulate light bulbs and fish hooks.


  28. 21-Roger

    "Thanks. The state of Colorado in fact both bans wood burning in my home, on certain days, and implements technological performance standards for word burning stoves:..." --Roger Pielke Jr.

    "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected. The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State." --James Madison

  29. -29-markbahner

    Given that the government does regulate both light blubs and fishing hooks, I'll submit that as evidence that the government is "allowed" to do so ... but the beauty of the US Constitution is that while we can argue about this back and forth all day long, the ultimate arbiter is the judicial system. If you think that these actions are unconstitutional, then you can sue in the court systems and have the issue adjudicated (and a court ruling would be excellent evidence that such regulations are not allowed). Otherwise, we'll just have to agree to disagree, Thanks!

  30. Roger,

    An adjudication would indeed be the ultimate arbiter if judges merely interpreted the law as written. As it is now, it depends entirely on the philosophical balance on the appeals court benches. Stare decisis seems to only apply to decisions you agree with.

  31. -31-Roger

    "Given that the government does regulate both light bulbs and fishing hooks, I'll submit that as evidence that the government is "allowed" to do so..."

    The question is whether the government is "allowed" to do so *under the Constitution*.

    If the government is allowed to do so *under the Constitution*, it should be pretty simple to identify that part of the Constitution which allows the action. After all, as James Madison (aka, "Father of the Constitution") noted: "The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined."

    “…but the beauty of the US Constitution is that while we can argue about this back and forth all day long,…”

    It shouldn’t take “all day long”. You seem to think the federal government is authorized to regulate light bulbs and fishing hooks under the Constitution. If you are correct, it should be easy for you to point to that part of the Constitution that enumerates that delegated power. If you can’t, it seems pretty clear that the federal government is not authorized to do those things under the Constitution.

    “If you think that these actions are unconstitutional, then you can sue in the court systems and have the issue adjudicated (and a court ruling would be excellent evidence that such regulations are not allowed).”

    This is analogous to the hypothetical situation wherein a policeman steals one of the blueberry bush containers on my deck. You can say, “If he does do that, he must be allowed to do so. If you think he’s not allowed to do that, you should go through the court system. If they rule in your favor, that would be excellent evidence he’s not allowed to do that.”

    "Otherwise, we'll just have to agree to disagree,..."

    We should be able to agree on such a simple fact. Like I previously wrote, if you could point to a Commerce Clause case within the first 100 years of when the Constitution was ratified that you think supports your contention, I might change my mind. But absent that, my knowledge of the Constitution (i.e., I can read it) and my knowledge of the history of the Constitution (e.g., why the Commerce Clause was added, and that the federal government was to be one of enumerated powers) lead to the seemingly obvious conclusion that federal government regulation of fish hooks and light bulbs are not constitutional.

    Rather than "agreeing to disagree" it would be better if you provided some more evidence to support your argument. It would also be a good idea for you to publicly apologize to Rand Paul for calling him a "dim bulb."

  32. The short answer to your question is this:
    Regulations are justified to ban products
    unsafe to use.
    They are not justified to ban products that do not meet technology standards.

    Ban lead paint -Yes
    Ban Fish Hooks or Light Bulbs that don't meet technolgy standards -No

    RE Fish Hooks or Light Bulbs,
    consumers can be informed by labelling or otherwise - and make their own purchase decisions.
    No need for a bureaucrat to say otherwise.

    With light bulbs,
    the additional argument is that electricity consumption is reduced
    The overall savings are actually small for many reasons
    ( ceolas.net/#li171x )

    Certainly: One can praise the aim of using energy more efficiently.
    But then the other described measures on the website, that reduce energy waste and increase energy efficiency are more appropriate.
    If there is a problem - deal with the problem.

    Prefer to keep a direct state involvement in reducing energy consumption?
    What, at least until now, has been the usual way to reduce consumption but retain choice of safe products - or even unsafe ones, like tobacco and alcohol? Taxation.

    Taxation - compared to regulation - is preferable as a direct product targeting instrument to reduce consumption, whether of oil/coal/gas sources, the electricity they produce, or as taxation on individual products based on energy consumption (buildings, cars, electrical products).
    Yes, that could apply to fish hooks too, based on whatever technology standard is favored.

    Consumers keep choice, which can include "new technology" products being cheaper than today via tax reduction or subsidies (equilibrating the market), while governments can also gain income

    For example, the 2 billion current US (and EU) pre-ban sales of relevant cheap and therefore easily taxable light bulbs shows the potential great governmental income from taxing them alone.

    The California Irony: A bankrupt ban-happy state choosing to ignore all the possible income from energy efficiency taxation on products from buildings to bulbs.

    stimulated marketplace competition is better still:
    Under competitive pressure, manufacturers are forced into market research of what people actually want - whether with fish hooks or light bulbs.
    People of course do want to try new products that might (with light bulbs) also save
    money from saving energy – if the products are good enough.
    Inventors of new great fish hooks, that might last longer, and of lighting that might save more energy, can be helped to the marketplac­e.

    “Expensive to buy but cheap in the long run”?
    Battery (Energizer bunny!) and washing up liquid manufacturers can
    imaginatively advertise and sell such products – if they are good enough.
    So can light bulb and other manufacturers,
    rather than happily support regulations that force people into buying overly-expensive more profitable products, that they would not otherwise buy.

    An illustrative example,
    comparing market competition and taxation on light bulbs, instead of regulations:

  33. In the context that regulatory standards
    should only apply for safety reasons,
    two other points:

    The idea of new technology defining standards
    of what is allowed on the market, can actually run counter to usage safety:

    Old technology may be "obsolescent" to some,
    but it is also known technology,
    and thereby also safe technology,
    proven over time.

    Maybe the "new technology fish hooks" will be found to unsafe in some way, leeching some substance or whatever:
    Certainly, this applies to CFL light bulbs
    (radiation and mercury concerns) and LED bulbs (lead and arsenic concerns).
    We can welcome the new - it does not mean having to ban the old.

    As you say in your previous post about standards,
    there are lots of standards that limit consumer choice.
    However: One should distinguish between legally enforced standards, and informatory standards,
    as in the easy grading of products to simplify markets:

    You may print out something on a "letter" or "document" size paper
    - but nothing prevents you, or someone else, from making and distributing paper sheets of a different size - and the same with lots of other
    market standards.

    The big difference with light bulbs,
    is therefore that you are legally prevented from making, distributing, or buying light bulbs that don't meet a certain standard.

    And that is what is wrong, outside safety reasons, as explained.

    I wrote a piece on standards and markets in relation to your previous post about this :-)

  34. Also: The weak fish hook example you gave is not comparable... because it does not ban stronger hooks that do not meet a set standard, just mandates weak hooks for catching some types of fish.

    "NOAA’s Fisheries Service will require commercial fishermen who fish for yellowfin tuna, swordfish and other species with longlines in the Gulf of Mexico to use a new type of hook, called a weak hook, designed to reduce the incidental catch of Atlantic bluefin tuna..."

  35. Since enforced standards should only apply for usage safety reasons,
    there is a particular irony around mandated new technology:

    Old "obsolescent" technology is also safe and known technology...
    new, more complex, energy saving technology
    is also unknown and thereby possibly unsafe technology:
    Note CFLs (radiation and mercury) LEDs (lead and arsenic) concerns...

    As you say in a previous post, there are many standards that reduce consumer choice,
    but that does not prohibit alternatives.

    For example, paper sheets are conveniently graded "letter" or "document" size standards,
    and many similar product standards make purchasing simpler on the market,
    but that does not prohibit anyone from making and selling different size paper sheets etc

    Banning light bulbs that do not meet a certain energy usage standard thereby unnecessarily reduces choice (energy saving incandescents still being different, and more expensive, than
    simple incandescent types).
    Essay about standards and markets: