Saturday, December 03, 2011

More On The GOP Jihad Against Consumer Protection


On Wednesday we took a look at how Republicans and other conservatives serve their corporate masters with an unending jihad against regulations that protect consumers, small businesses, the environment, workers and the common good. We saw a clear example from Vance Packard's 1960 best seller, The Waste Makers of what unscrupulous businesses-- with an Ayn Rand/GOP perspective do when there is no one looking out for the public interest. We concluded it was very Lord of the Flies, which was published 6 years before Packard's book.

But I didn't want to leave anyone with the impression that it was just a bunch of scoundrels tricking homeowners into replacing their furnaces. Packard was very clear that it went way beyond that. And in our society, where the king of planned obsolescence, Steve Jobs, has practically been deified, it's worth looking at this a little more deeply-- especially with Boehner's and Cantor's demented House passing bill after bill after bill tearing down the regulatory system, bills that the Senate and the president ignore-- but bills that they will pass again in 2013-- in the hopes of having a friendly, more demented, Senate and White House. Thursday they passed a bill, the Regulatory Flexibility Act, that has been dubbed a Koch Bros Christmas present. The goal is to lessen regulations for the benefit of the 1% and much to the detriment of the 99%. But isn't that what Republican governance is all about-- despite the deluded and naive saps on the left who find no difference between the GOP and the Democrats (just as Stalin found no difference in the early '30s between the Nazis and the Social Democrats).

So Lamar Smith's H.R. 527 passed 263-159, every single Republican plus 28 dedicated servants of the 1% who have infiltrated the Democratic Party voting AYE. The bad Democrats (by the way):
Jason Atmire (Blue Dog-PA)
John Barrow (Blue Dog-GA)
Sanford Bishop (Blue Dog-GA)
Dan Boren (Blue Dog-OK)
Leonard Boswell (Blue Dog-IA)
John Carney (corporate whore-DE)
Ben Chandler (Blue Dog-KY)
Jim Cooper (Blue Dog-TN)
Jim Costa (Blue Dog-CA)
Mark Critz (corporate whore-PA)
Henry Cuellar (Blue Dog-TX)
Pete DeFazio (someone who has recently flipped his lid-OR)
Kathy Hochul (ConservaDem-NY)
Tim Holden (Blue Dog-PA)
Ron Kind (corporate whore-WI)
Larry Kissell (stealth Blue Dog-NC)
Dave Loebsack (IA)
Jim Matheson (Blue Dog-UT)
Mike McIntrye (Blue Dog-NC)
Bill Owens (ConservaDem-NY)
Ed Perlmutter (ConservaDem-CO)
Colin Peterson (Blue Dog-MN)
Nick Rahall (ConservaDem-WV)
Mike Ross (Blue Dog-AR)
Kurt Schrader (Blue Dog-OR)
Heath Shuler (Blue Dog-NC)
Betty Sutton (OH)
Tim Walz (MN)

Sherwood Boehlert, a very respected former Republican congressman from New York, once chairman of the Science Committee, wrote an OpEd about the GOP anti-regulatory jihad for The Hill Wednesday, in which he accused right-wing Republicans of going too far.
The House is moving forward with three bills that would cripple the regulatory system.  The bills are not going to become law this Congress, but they show how far a party in thrall to its right-most wing is willing to veer from what has long been the mainstream. The critical question is whether and when more moderate voices-- centrist Republicans in Congress, sensible business leaders and the largely centrist American public-- will recognize the damage being done and raise their voices to call it to a halt. Clearly, that’s not going to happen in the House itself.
No one would argue that the regulatory system is perfect or that it’s some holy apparatus from which mere lawmakers should keep their distance.  But overall, it accomplishes what Congress set it up to do-- it protects the public, produces benefits that outweigh costs, and has, according to most studies, a neutral to slightly positive effect on employment. And as we continue to suffer through a bank-induced recession, it shouldn’t take leaps of imagination to understand the harm inflicted when the system fails to do its job.
Yet the bills before the House would prevent the system from working: they are a recipe for failure. The bills are sometimes described with the mild term “regulatory reform” but these measures have as much to do with reform as Communist re-education camps had to do with education.  

In the case of the REINS Act, in particular, the analogy is all too apt: “reform” is simply a euphemism for an effort to break the system and remake it according to ideological prescription that will leave it permanently hobbled.                 
Anyone who wants to understand what the right wing’s project is truly about need look no further than the REINS Act, sponsored in the Senate, tellingly, by Rand Paul. The bill would require Congress to approve all major rules. This would mean, among other things, that Congress would be the arbiter of each and every significant regulatory matter, no matter how technical, and that a single chamber of Congress could kill any rule. 

It is not hard to predict the result-- a virtual shutdown of the system that will leave the public exposed. Decision-making would be less rational and more random than anything that happens now because the formalities imposed by agency procedures and judicial review would no longer govern.
One doesn’t need to guess at the results because we’ve already tried a system like this. The regulatory system developed, starting in the late 1800s, precisely because a system that vested this much daily decision-making in Congress simply didn’t work. 

If you think that the very notion of having, say, a Food and Drug Administration is a mistake, then REINS makes perfect sense.  Otherwise, it’s hard to credit. And it’s hard to see how even business would be better off without expert agencies like the FDA, which provide a degree of predictability and consumer confidence for business.
And Congress doesn’t need REINS to control the regulatory system; it can already intervene to block any rule (and is not reluctant to do so), and it writes the laws that determine what gets regulated. And it’s ironic that people who say they got elected to change the regulatory system can at the same time claim that no one holds Congress accountable. Their real complaint is that not everyone agrees with them about how the system should work.
The other bills before the House don’t go as far as REINS-- nothing could, short of just eliminating every regulatory agency entirely-- but they are animated by the same attitudes, and it’s no accident that they’re being brought up as a group.

They are all different ways to gum up the works.  And in some ways they contradict each other: REINS seeks to weaken regulatory agencies and to make Congress the locus of all decisions, while the Regulatory Accountability Act (RAA) gives the agencies and the courts more responsibility. The only straight line between those two opposite points leads to regulatory breakdown.
The RAA does have one structural similarity with REINS, though: it would effectively amend, in one fell swoop, numerous health and safety laws without any serious analysis of what that would mean. In addition to saddling the regulatory process with enough new procedural requirements to slow it to a standstill, in one simple phrase-- “notwithstanding any other provision of law”-- the RAA changes the criteria for setting health and safety standards in many statutes.

Also like REINS, the RAA revives ideas that have already failed, such as so-called “formal rulemaking”-- trial-like procedures that were shown to slow things down without improving any results. Again, an ironic move when the REINS Act would effectively ditch all formal procedures in favor of a political sweepstakes.

The third and least extreme bill, the Regulatory Flexibility Act, also ignores history-- larding the system with additional reviews based on previous efforts that have slowed progress while helping nobody.

The Republican Party should be spending its time trying to improve what is basically an effective system, figuring out how to improve protections and reduce costs. But the House is off on a very different path, ignoring experience in favor of ideology, working to destroy a system that has protected business as well as the public.  It’s high time for those in the center to call them on that.

So... back to our friend Vance Packard and his theorizing about the future in 1960. This is what happens when corporations-- which have only one goal (profit) and no conscience-- don't have regulations to follow:
The idea of creating obsolescence of quality through material failure is not a new concept. In the late twenties, Advertising & Selling carried a statement by J. George Frederick on the problem of increasing consumption. He dismissed as a "mere minor stopgap" the proposals of political liberals that more money be put into consumers' hands. A far more powerful lever, he said, was the "principle" for which he had dreamed up the name "progressive obsolescence." That simply meant indoctrinating the people who do have spending money with the habit of "buying more goods on the basis of obsolescence in efficiency, economy, style, or taste."

Obsolescence planning was spelled out much more bluntly-- and specifically in terms of quality-- a few years later in a speculative article entitled "Outmoded Durability" in Printers' Ink (January 9, 1936). It's author was Leon Kelley, identified as an executive of Fishier, Zealand & Co. The article subtitle was "If Merchandise Does Not Wear Out Faster, Factories Will Be Idle, People Unemployed."

Mr. Kelley explained that man traditionally has cherished the notion that durability is a prime feature of merit in products and that the longer a thing lasts the more completely you realize a return on the money you paid for it. He cited the grandfather's clock that had been in his family for two hundred years and still worked fine. Advertisers, he said, have tended to stress durability of their product as a major feature.

This harping on durability, he said, was out of date and should stop. It didn't meet the needs of the times.

...Certain practices of General Electric came to light during a United States government suit involving General Electric's international agreements in the late thirties...

In one memorandum introduced as an exhibit during the proceedings, a company engineer outlined to his superior a program for increasing sales by increasing the efficiency and shortening the life of flashlight lamps. He pointed out that progress already was being made. Originally the flashlight lamps outlasted three batteries. They were now made to last only through two batteries. And now he was proposing that the lamp life be adjusted to last through only one battery. "If this is done," he pointed out, "we estimate that it would result in increasing our flashlight business approximately 60 percent."

...A number of designing engineers entrusted with shaping United States products meanwhile began showing acute cases of guilty conscience about some of the things they were expected to do. After all, they hadn't been taught during their idealistic days back in college how to build products that would fall apart after an appropriate period of service.

In fact it sounds like the corporations, which went to a great deal of effort to hide their intentions, were downright sociopathic.
One magazine writer asked, "Is purposeful design for product failure unethical? The particular engineer in question stoutly defends his company's design philosophy in two ways: first, if portable radios characteristically lasted ten years, the market might be saturated long before repeat sales could support continued volume manufacturing...; second, the user would be denied benefits of accelerated progress if long life is a product characteristic." The editor's informant went on to explain that it takes sales to get money in order to develop "better" performance, "better" styling, and "better" prices for products.

The consumer had no choice in the matter and that his investment over the ten years was much higher, didn't seem to bother than corporate heads, who operated outside of the purview of any regulatory agencies designed to protect the interests of consumers, who were, clearly, being systematically ripped off by this "customer be damned attitude."

Packard concludes the chapter with three objections to what he calls "designing death dates" into products. I'll go directly to the final one:
Death-dating was cheating the customers out of hard earned money. Harold L. Chambers of Remington Rand observed "I greatly doubt that any one of us [designers] would wish to apply this "principle" of planned short-term failure to his own purchases of home, auto, piano, and other durable goods involving considerable expense. Why, then, support pressing this principle on 'someone else'? ... Several expressed the opinion that if engineers did in designing products for a given life expectancy, then ethics should compel them to insist that those death dates be printed on the product. One was not optimistic that sales departments would permit that. Managements might fear, he said, that such information would be "misunderstood" by consumers,

Or that they actually would understand. There's even a chance that voters will figure out what Republicans are up to by taking a sledge hammer to the regulatory system on behalf of the worst capitalistic predators roaming the planet today. This interview was done early in 1989, even before OccupyWallStreet took over Zuccotti Park.

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