Dim bulbs

Recently I bought a lamp for my office at home.  It’s a pretty neat contraption, with a moveable “arm” I can turn this way or that for extra light.

While I was at the lamp store eyeing my future purchase, the owner approached me.  He is an immigrant who speaks English with an accent, and a typical small businessman in every way:  keenly interested in his customers, mindful of details, knowledgeable about the wacky world of lamps.

“It’s 180 watts,” he said, pointing at the object of my desire.

I nodded, smiling.  He seemed unhappy about something.

“It used to be 360 watts,” he went on.  “In fact, you can still screw on a 360-watt bulb, but it won’t work.”

I asked whether the bulb would burn out.

His eyes flashed.  “No, it turns off,” he said, and the intensity of scorn in his voice is impossible for me to convey.  “It turns itself off.  Look at this –“ he pointed to a strange-looking rectangular device attached to the electric cord – “every lamp must have one of these.  By law.  You know what it does?”  I shook my head.  “You put in a 360-watt bulb, it turns the lamp off.  So, lamp costs more – you get less choice.”

I was in fact astounded by the minuteness of this regulation, but decided to treat it as a joke:  “Well, I guess the people who mandated this are a whole lot smarter than we are…”

He looked at me as if I were crazy.  “You kidding?  They want us to use less electricity.  You  know what happens? People buy more lamps!

Community life is complex to the edge of chaos.  The subjective needs of a single person are beyond the power of the cleverest algorithm to describe.  I walked away with my lamp, wondering how many additional attempts by highly-educated, well-meaning regulators are having the opposite effect of what was intended.

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8 Responses to Dim bulbs

  1. Adam says:

    This is the second story in this vein that I’ve seen this week.

    Here’s the first.

  2. Brutus says:

    I get that you heap scorn on pointed-haired bureaucrats because the costly regulations they create are so obvious to circumvent. But what about the folks who do the circumvention, the ones who simply buy more lamps? Don’t they deserve their share of scorn?

    Whether it’s electricity or gasoline, I’ve seen discussions focused on the idea that suppliers work to increase demand up to the limit of production, at which point they turn around and try to destroy demand to avoid shortages and supply interruptions. It’s a game of cat and mouse. So if some bureaucrat foresees that shortages and supply interruptions are inevitable as production diminishes (as it must), the alternatives are to restrict consumption and reduce demand, which leads to unintended consequences and easy circumvention, and doing nothing but waiting until the SHTF. Bureaucrats aren’t usually paid to do nothing.

    • Adam says:

      I’ve seen discussions focused on the idea that suppliers work to increase demand up to the limit of production, at which point they turn around and try to destroy demand to avoid shortages and supply interruptions.

      This makes no sense whatsoever. Is there some empirical backing for this sort of thing?

      A supplier never has to “destroy demand to avoid shortages and supply interruptions.” They just have to increase the price until the number of purchases is reduced to accommodate whatever the present level of supply is. The increased price also encourages producers to increase the supply further. Basic econ there.

      And I think you misunderstood something:

      I get that you heap scorn on pointed-haired bureaucrats because the costly regulations they create are so obvious to circumvent.

      The problem isn’t that the regulations are “obvious to circumvent”. The problem is that the bureaucrats are making decisions from afar, without on the ground knowledge of the effects their decisions will have.

      In this case, the effect is that the amount of light a single lamp can produce is considered intolerable by most consumers. That is why they were buying the brighter lights before the regulators decided that it was immoral to do so.

      They are not “circumventing” the regulation; they are attempting to meet the same needs they had before under the new set of rules. The fact that it costs more to do so now is the fault of the regulator.

    • From a moral perspective, if I’m willing to pay the going price for 360 watts, I don’t see why I’d deserve scorn. From a practical perspective, if I need more light I need more light: I’m pretty sure the regulators didn’t intend for me to sit in the dark.

      Once we move beyond my basic needs, into which I have pretty good insight, things get complex in a hurry, and you get this sort of thing.

  3. Brutus says:

    Adam wrote: A supplier never has to “destroy demand to avoid shortages and supply interruptions.” They just have to increase the price until the number of purchases is reduced to accommodate whatever the present level of supply is. The increased price also encourages producers to increase the supply further. Basic econ there.

    Basic econ is merely a model, which replicates reality quite imperfectly. Increasing price to reduce purchases is destroying demand. Same thing. The reason why it’s so important to do so with energy utilities, as opposed to some widget, is that everything goes plonk quickly without energy inputs and the people form into angry mobs. Even hunger doesn’t transform people so fast as when the lights go out.

    Further, both your replies argue as though the resources necessary to meet demand are limitless. For a while yet supply is able to exceed demand, but those silly regulations to stem consumption (hence, destroy demand) are in response to anticipated austerity. So as misguided as they may be, there is a moral dimension to them. But that’s not my usual argument.

    • Adam says:

      Neither of my replies imply that resources are limitless. I do agree, however, that there is a moral dimension to them. There is also a moral dimension to my argument–that it is immoral for ignorant bureaucrats with no skin in the game to make these choices for me.

      • Brutus says:

        Adam attempts to school me (but doesn’t recall): The increased price also encourages producers to increase the supply further. Basic econ there.

        In the 70s, we had an energy shortage. A couple years ago, we had a price spike. We’re currently in the “bumpy plateau” prior to descending the other side of the curve. The energy supply is a rather large elephant in the room of civilization, and to apply basic econ to the problem by saying, as though supply were limitless, “just increase supply,” is facile. That’s what you did.

        My point about bureaucrats, which seems to be lost amid protestations that someone is tellin’ you what to do or not do, it that they exist to create, well, bureaucracy. That’s the sole tool in their toolbox. It doesn’t work, mostly, but it’s what gets used anyway. This is why guileless Republicans calls to reduce the size of government (when the very opposite occurs) play so well with the public. We already know that most of our problems are well beyond regulation and legislation. A few recognize that our problems are structural, but most folks just want to be left alone to do as they please, which leads to the same end as being told what to do. So you can go tits up under the relatively light bootheel of bureaucracy or by your own hand.

  4. Adam says:

    In the 70s, we had an energy shortage.

    Well yes, you can’t increase prices when you have government enforced price controls!

    to apply basic econ to the problem by saying, as though supply were limitless, “just increase supply,” is facile. That’s what you did.

    No, that’s what you seem to think I did. I said that the higher price encourages producers to increase supply. I never argued that they had the ability to do so limitlessly.

    The price spike you mentioned from a few years ago lead to a big uptick in oil production; evidenced by many meetings of OPEC in which the Saudis begged the other member nations to reduce their production levels, everyone nodded, and promptly went back to their own countries and increased production anyway.

    A few recognize that our problems are structural, but most folks just want to be left alone to do as they please, which leads to the same end as being told what to do.

    Let’s stick to the case under discussion. Without regulation, people would have one lamp that provided the level of light they wanted. With regulation, they get two lamps to do the same.

    So being “left alone to do as they please” leads to half as many lamps and the same amount of light. Doesn’t sound like the same outcome to me.

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