Washington: Make no mistake about it: we are a nation of kvetchers -- of " groaners" and "complainers." Throughout our history, we Americans have, generally speaking, been quick when it comes to complaining and warning that someone -- frequently the government -- is abridging our God-given freedoms; of encroaching on our rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And whether the slight or abridgement or encroachment is real or imagined, we kvetch. But it's not really our fault; we cannot help it. Kvetching is as much a part of our historic fabric or genetic makeup as mom, apple-pie, and the flag. Our earliest roots were firmly planted in the soil of complaint -- witness the early outcry over taxes and tea -- and lovingly nurtured in the loam of eternal vigilance. That is what you get when your country is created largely by lawyers -- folks whose ability to kvetch is both admired and measured in billable hours.
These councilors-at-law fashioned a system -- and purposefully so -- that provided just as many questions as answers. It's almost as if in creating a new nation, they were also creating a new sub-species of humanity -- Quiritis Americani -- herein defined as "Members of an eternal, mythological debating society." For nearly 235 years, we have been debating whether or not the government -- whether it be federal, state or municipal -- has the legal authority to delimit individual or collective rights. Frequently, the debate begins with segments of the public kvetching about :
The rights of gun owners versus public safety;
The right to privacy versus national security;
The right to free speech versus truth, dignity and common sense;
The government's right to mandate versus business's right to market;
The literal words of The Constitution versus how various judges interpret them;
The individual's right to unfettered freedom versus the government's concern for the common weal.
Frequently the kvetch -- and ensuing debate will involve the so-called "slippery slope" argument (argumentum lubrica clivi); namely, that if "A" is permitted to occur, then certainly "B through Z" cannot be far behind. Two examples will suffice:
In the wake of January's mass-killing in Tucson, many calls went out for legislation reinstituting a ban on the sort of high-capacity (33-round) magazines employed by the alleged shooter. (n.b. Such magazines were illegal under terms of the 1994 assault weapons ban; that the law was permitted to expire during the first year of the George W. Bush administration.) The National Rifle Association (NRA) came out flatly and firmly against reinstituting the magazine ban, arguing that "If the government can limit the sort of ammunition we purchase today, they can just as easily take away our weapons tomorrow."
In 2007, Congress overwhelmingly passed -- and then-President George W. Bush signed -- the "Energy Independence and Security Act," a bill that would subject incandescent light bulbs to strict efficiency standards beginning in 2012. (n.b. What this means in practical terms is that within the next several years, the 100-watt incandescent bulb will become obsolete, replaced by far higher-efficient florescent or halogen bulbs.) During hearings on the then-proposed piece of legislation, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council testified that once the bill was fully enacted, it would "save homeowners $100 to $200 a year in energy costs and cut power-plant pollution by 100 million tons, the equivalent of taking 17 million cars off the road." Nonetheless, in late March 2008 then-Freshman Representative Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) introduced what she called (I kid you not) the "Light Bulb Freedom of Choice Act." In introducing her legislation, Bachmann said "the government has no business telling consumers what kind of light bulbs they can buy." Further, Bachmann argued, "If the Democrats can hose up a light bulb bill, don't trust them with the country."
Welcome to the slippery slope, a gentling-cresting hill in the land of kvetch where one is compelled to ask, "How many members of Congress does it take to screw in a light bulb?"
Bachmann's legislation mandated a study of the health risks associated with the newer spiral shaped energy-efficient florescent bulbs that many of us are already using in our homes. At the time, Bachmann argued that the florescent bulbs were far more polluting than their incandescent cousins, due to what she termed their "dangerously high levels of mercury." (n.b. When asked how her stand squared with those who claimed that phasing out 100-watt incandescent bulbs could have a positive effect on global warming, Bachmann called such concerns "voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax."
Not to be outdone, Senator Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Texas Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) just introduced S 395 and H.R. 921, known as the "Better Use of Light Bulbs Act (BULB), which would effectively cancel the earlier (2007) act. In addition to employing Bachmann's argument that florescent bulbs release dangerous amounts of mercury, Enzi contended that "Government doesn't need to be in the business of telling people what light bulb they have to use. If left alone, the best bulb will win its rightful standing in the marketplace." (n.b. The 2007 law does not ban traditional incandescent light bulbs. Instead it requires new bulbs to use 25 to 30 percent less energy beginning in 2012. The rules call for further improvements in efficiency by 2014. The new standards have already taken effect in California.)
One is simply amazed that at a time when our attention should be riveted on such topics as revolution in the Middle East, deficits at home and an ever-increasing number of creatures facing extinction every week, there are those who can still find time to kvetch that the government's supposed mandate on the future of incandescent light bulbs is yet another nail in the coffin of American liberty. To listen to the carping and kvetching of Bachman, Enzi, Bachmann et al, one would that saving some energy , reducing our dependence on foreign energy sources and even eliminating some pollution in the air (all of which this change in light bulbs will potentially do) is the equivalent of Uncle Joe Stalin regulating what crops were grown back in the 1930s and 1940s.
I think I can understand how and why libertarians are be concerned about the federal government's involvement in energy policy vis-a-vis light bulbs. They simply view -- and are deeply chary of -- the federal government's encroaching on any area of daily life as a diminution of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." But on the other hand, does not the government have the right and the power to safeguard the economic -- not alone the physical -- wellbeing of the nation? Time and again throughout our history, the government has stepped in to do the latter -- whether it be in the area of food inspection, mine safety or clean air. That's its job; to leave food safety, mine safety, clean air -- or in this case, light bulbs -- in the hands of industry and industry alone, is akin to putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse . . .
Should we be surprised that folks are kvetching over light bulbs when there's also a lot of caterwauling over Mrs. Obama's campaign against childhood obesity?
What other choice does a nation of kvetchers have . . . ?
-2011 Kurt F. Stone