Do people support efficiency? Depends on how you ask

Did you hear? The government is going to ban our traditional lighting!

Back in July, Rasmussen Reports conducted a poll that found 67 percent of Americans oppose new efficiency standards for light bulbs (Yes, I know, another light bulb post. Bear with me). But yesterday, a poll conducted by the Natural Resources Defense Council found a similar percentage in three Midwest states actually support the law.

What’s going on?

If you guessed that the discrepancy is because the questions were worded differently, score yourself five bonus points.

Here’s the Rasmussen question:

While effectively banning the sale of traditional light bulbs, a new law will allow only more expensive light bulbs that are expected to last longer and be more energy efficient. Should the sale of traditional light bulbs be banned?

I’m just speculating here, but I’d be willing to wager that whenever you tell someone a new law will “ban” something “traditional” in favor of something “more expensive,” they are going to react negatively.

And besides the accuracy problem of labeling the law a “ban,” what makes a light bulb “traditional”? Is it the shape? The light spectrum it gives off? The tungsten filament?

The word “traditional” is also loaded with political freight. The bride throwing the bouquet, singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the seventh-inning stretch, apple pie — those are all “traditional” things, too. Would anyone support a law banning those things?

Public Policy Polling, working on behalf of the NRDC, framed the question differently. While the NRDC is hardly dispassionate on the issue, the question they posed contains a bit more background information:

In 2007, Congress set higher energy efficiency standards for lighting that will go into effect next year. This will result in more energy-efficient light bulbs on store shelves, including brand new incandescent bulbs that are 25 to 30 percent more efficient. The standards will save Ohio residents more than $360 million a year and consumers nationwide $10 billion a year. Do you support or oppose these minimum energy efficiency standards for light bulbs?

When the question is posed this way, the majority of respondents in each state said they support the law: 60 percent in Ohio, 64 percent in Michigan and 69 percent in Illinois.

The NRDC question fails to mention that the new bulbs will be more expensive. Rasmussen, while acknowledging the bulbs will last longer, doesn’t explain that they’re expected to result in long term cost savings. That question comes next:

The Energy Department says that the new light bulbs will cost more up front but save money in the long-run. How likely is it that the new light bulbs will save money in the long run?

In this case, more than half (57 percent) think the bulbs will save them money.

If you set emotions and politics aside, there are really very few drawbacks to energy efficiency. Ultimately, it’s cheaper to not use electricity in the first place than it is to build or upgrade power plants.

But because opponents of this law have successfully framed it as a question of personal liberties, i.e., taking away your right to buy inefficient light bulbs, many Americans don’t see it that way. It’s understandable. No one wants the government taking something away from them.

It’s a trade off. And what both of these polls seem to indicate is that it’s a trade most people are willing to make, because they believe they’ll benefit in the long run.

Photo by dok1 via Creative Commons

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