January 1, 2014


Competitive markets with low costs of entry have a characteristic that consumers love and businesses lament: very low profit margins. GE, Philips and Sylvania dominated the U.S. market in incandescents, but they couldn’t convert that dominance into price hikes. Because of light bulb’s low material and manufacturing costs, any big climb in prices would have invited new competitors to undercut the giants — and that new competitor would probably have won a distribution deal with Wal-Mart.

So, simply the threat of competition kept profit margins low on the traditional light bulb — that’s the magic of capitalism. GE and Sylvania searched for higher profits by improving the bulb — think of the GE Soft White bulb. These companies, with their giant research budgets, made advances with halogen, LED and fluorescent technologies, and even high-efficiency incandescents. They sold these bulbs at a much higher prices — but they couldn’t get many customers to buy them for those high prices. That’s the hard part about capitalism — consumers, not manufacturers, get to demand what something is worth.

Capitalism ruining their party, the bulb-makers turned to government. Philips teamed up with NRDC. GE leaned on its huge lobbying army — the largest in the nation — and soon they were able to ban the low-profit-margin bulbs. . . .

Technologies often run the course from breakthrough innovation to obsolete. Think of the 8-track, the Model T or Kodachrome film. But the market didn’t kill the traditional light bulb. Government did it, at the request of big business.

That’s usually how these things work. Big business is not the same as capitalism or free markets.

But if you want to fight the power, there’s still time to stock up.

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