The Light in Rand Paul’s Bathroom

by John on April 16, 2011

At a recent Department of Energy hearing, Rand Paul trashed fluorescent light bulbs and low-flush toilets. This provoked widespread media coverage, mostly ‘cute’ rather than analytical, as in a NY Times op-ed “Rand Paul Blames Energy Department for Faulty Toilets, Amongst Other Things.” Congressman Paul’s comments establish him as a leader among the ill-informed and willfully stupid, those whom the acerbic newspaperman H.L. Mencken, were he alive, would undoubtedly characterize as the neo-booboisie.

Rand’s comments show appalling ignorance of two factors greatly affecting the future of the United States. The first is the unique intersection of science, engineering and markets that has produced so much of America’s economic base; the second is that when you switch on a light or flush a toilet, you use part of the interlinked public structures that enables modern life: all major engineering feats that not only need continued improvement for the country to be competitive, but must be maintained. Annual losses of efficiency from failure to maintain infrastructure can cost billions, documented in the American Society of Civil Engineer’s infrastructure report card, which gives the nation mostly ‘Ds.’

Examining Paul’s claims of government interference over fluorescent light bulbs illustrates his incomprehension as to how science, technology and markets develop. The first major U.S. adopters of compact fluorescent bulbs were the hotel industry and other commercial-lighting users, happy to take advantage of the green credentials, the reduced cost of changing bulbs, and the significant savings from energy efficiency.  Compact fluorescents have downsides, but light emitting diodes—already savings communities thousands of dollars in energy and maintenance costs, in traffic signal applications—are developing rapidly. LED street lighting delivers 80% lower electrical cost. Pacific Gas and Electric and other utilities support switchover.

Other new lighting technologies are improving fast and promise competition. Meanwhile compact fluorescents are saving millions in energy cost worldwide, not to mention reduced C02 emissions. And Paul has it wrong again: the government has not banned incandescents, merely mandated efficiency standards. If the U.S. had pursued efficiency standards during the first energy crisis in the 70s, when engineer Ed Hammer invented the compact fluorescent for G.E., they would not have abandoned the market to the Chinese and Europeans and might even have invested what was then estimated as $25 million to build a plant to manufacture them in the U.S. Hammer’s first fluorescent is in the Smithsonian, but Wal-Mart met its target of selling 100 million compact fluorescent bulbs per year in 2007, made in Asia under the G.E. label.

Water is heavy and increasingly rare and costly to move and treat after use—6.5% of California’s electrical energy is spent to move and treat water. Orange County is already recycling its wastewater for return to the household tap. Reducing household toilet-water requirements, of which flushing constitutes 30%, is a big deal. Paul is attempting to replace columnist Dave Barry as the head of the movement Barry started, but once again, gets it wrong.

Barry recanted his earlier anti-toilet-regulation column, after getting a modern low-flush, 1.6- versus five-gallon toilet: “…I cannot speak highly enough of this toilet. It is an inspiring example of American ingenuity and engineering ‘know-how.’’ It has become like a member of the family; I have affectionately named it ‘Maurice.’’ The bottom line: If there is an act of Congress that Maurice cannot handle in one flush, I have no personal knowledge of it.”

If Congressman Paul, who can surely afford a country home, wishes to live out his principles of avoiding government meddling, he can handle it himself. If planned, sited and dug properly, the old outhouse does not impact any of society (except his guests) and will handle things without the EPA and those expensive sewers, treatment plants and regulatory agencies. Instructions for building a privy are available on the web, and he can even build a two-holer if his family is large. Lighting is harder. Environmentalists have not saved enough whales to provide the whale oil used until kerosene lamps arrived in the late 1800s but that led to Rockefeller and Standard Oil. His is only alternative: tallow candles made from the fat of cattle he will undoubtedly raise himself to avoid the intrusive presence of the USDA and FDA to protect his food safety.

There’s an old saying in technology: the best of the old always beats the first of the new. Government makes space for the first of the new by making markets and setting standards that require technological improvement. Think waste treatment for safe swimming, cell phones, jet aircraft, the Internet etc. and other technological improvements that account for perhaps 50% of our economic growth since WWII. A country either advances or falls back and with its current level of understanding, we would be better off if Paul returned to Kentucky to care for his own outhouse. He can cut out the moon and the stars on its door strictly to please his own tastes.

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