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August 21, 2007

A Teachable Moment

by Christopher Hayes

Matt links to a McClatchy piece about how the Bush administration, in concert with the Chinese government, worked against tightening inspection and regulation of toys manufactured in China. Dog bites man, to be sure. But what's really striking to me is how Democrats have completely failed to use the steady and growing trickle of stories about dangerous products emanating from the unregulated factories of China to make the broader case for importance of regulation. When I took intro economics at the University of Chicago, I remember my professor dismissing with a caustic laugh the very notion of public health inspection of local restaurants. "I don't think the Medici would stay in business very long if they took to poisoning their customers."

That's more or less the belief system (if you can call it that) that the Bush administration has marshalled to combat something as commonsensical as, you know, making sure children's toys aren't coated in lead paint. So this is as teachable moment as they come, and you can bet that, if, say, the national healthcare system in France was accidentally poisoning its patients, we'd be hearing a chorus of conservatives making the case that this was example of the ideological bankruptcy of state-run healthcare.

So where's the chorus on the other side? Rick Perlstein has been eloquent and consisent in calling attention to the connection between the ideological commitments of modern-day conservatism and the inevitable degradation of public infrastructure and regulatory standards. Other bloggers have joined him, but this is an object lesson in the inability of Democratic politicians to wholistically articulate a social democratic vision even when the opportunity is handed to them on a platter.

August 21, 2007 in Big Business | Permalink

Comments

I remember my professor dismissing with a caustic laugh the very notion of public health inspection of local restaurants. "I don't think the Medici would stay in business very long if they took to poisoning their customers."

Well, yes, I suppose that once a sufficient number of children die from contaminated products imported from China people will start looking at the "Made in" labels and adjust their purchases accordingly.

That's the real-world result of your professor's philosophy, and like you I hope that more people start to understand this.

What's really peculiar about it is how inefficient such a system is, to wait for enough injuries, deaths, sicknesses, etc. to happen and then to continue to wait, as these tragedies occur, for 300 million people to all get sufficiently informed and motivated to take action.

It's almost as if something other than pure efficiency is motivating these people.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 21, 2007 11:16:07 AM

"I don't think the Medici would stay in business very long if they took to poisoning their customers."

Well, that is, unless they could make so tremendously much money in a short enough period of time that it didn't matter that it was only a short term business.

Also, if there is likely to be little punishment for the investors for doing so, why would they care?

Posted by: El Cid | Aug 21, 2007 11:17:42 AM

Or unless their customers don't directly attach the illness to the Medici, as lead poisoning frequently can't be attached to any detectable cause by parents without lab equipment. Those who manufactured and sold Patent medicines, for example, previous to the FDA, frequently poisoned their customers, very cheerily, I have no doubt. Why would they do it? Why would the customers keep buying medicine that made them ill? Well, they were ill, weren't they? Obviously they needed more medicine! Most of us are very bad at post-hoc exercises like this -- hence the need for blind studies, and big samples, and the scientific method.

Otherwise, my God how the money rolls in. It's capitalism in action.

Posted by: delagar | Aug 21, 2007 11:33:19 AM

Your story about your UChicago prof reminds me of an argument I had with a friend who was in the process of taking Econ101. I pointed out that I think it's sort of messed up that the FDA has no legal power to make meatpacking plants recall tainted meat, nor even to force meatpacking pants to reveal where the tainted shipments had been sent. He was all "but but invisible hand of the free market why would they want to kill their customers?" To which I responded, of course, that they don't care, because they make tons of money ANYWAY, and since most people don't know where their meat comes from a couple dead eight-year-olds very well might not have a serious economic impact on them.

To which HE responded, "well, if people do die, then a politician can run and use that as part of his platform and get elected and fix the problem."

At which point I think I changed the subject.

Posted by: Isabel | Aug 21, 2007 11:39:27 AM

Not to mention mine safety, bridge and infrastructure investment. There are quite a few balls the Dems could run with, if they had any, uh, balls.
-J

Posted by: John I | Aug 21, 2007 12:09:25 PM

There's not much in the article linked to to support the charges. Indeed, as is too typical of McClatchy stories, it reports as fact, in the lead, what are actually vague assertions made by those opposed to Administration policy. The only specific evidence cited relating to recent policy was that the Sierra Club had sued Bush's EPA to get it to require toy producers to do health-and-safety studies about the use of lead in their toys. That wouldn't have had any effect on inspections, wouldn't have had any effect on the recalled toys, which were supposed to be lead-free anyway. The other evidence cited was about Clinton's Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief, who stayed on for a year under Bush, and didn't push for a ban on lead during her seven years at the CDCP, partly because China wasn't a big producer at the time.

Litbrit's had several detailed pieces related to this kind of thing, and there's no doubt this Administration should have acted more vigorously in some cases, but there's nothing new or particularly relevant in the article. Maybe that's one reason Democrats haven't made more of this yet.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 21, 2007 12:30:49 PM

The problem with using the China imports as an entree for arguing the compelling need for regulation is the extent of its political ramifications. It's hard to see how it could be done without calling into question the neo-liberal policy of globalization, that hallmark of the Clinton era. This would naturally entail antagonizing all the interests, economic and political, that have benefited from that policy.

Further, it raises serious foreign policy implications in that increased regulation and/or restriction of Chinese imports could set the stage for a direct confrontation between US and Chinese interests on the global stage.

Not that any of the above justifies the Democrat's silence.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 21, 2007 12:37:28 PM

When I took intro economics at the University of Chicago, I remember my professor dismissing with a caustic laugh the very notion of public health inspection of local restaurants.

In Singapore, the cognoscenti tend to prefer food vendors with a 'C' grade, on the assumption that the A and B-grade places are spending more time keeping the things clean for inspectors than serving food. There's a barbecue place near me that has an 80-something rating, for similar reasons to DiFara.

Local restaurants are different from long, attenuated manufacturing or production chains, for obvious reasons.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Aug 21, 2007 12:42:35 PM

Commenters here neglect the effect of the deafening amplification in US media of any negative outcome in statistically insignficant cases (such as the anecdotes related in the McClatchy piece.

In fact, it is not only likely but probable that any statistically significant uptick in illness or death that can be related to Chinese imports will prompt hysterical over-reaction, and legislators will be lining up to pass meaningless regulations.

Just like Vioxx, airbags, saccarine, and the more ancient "unsafe at any speed" fabulisms. We think we wnat to be a "zero tolerance," risk averse society, but we always worry about the wrong risks. Quick: which segments of the toy and entertainment industries produces more net harm than good from a public health perspective?

If you seriously consider video games or Hollywood movies and television in the mix, sub-dollar infant trinkets by volume, dollar or health effects would score far safer.

Not that I have any concern for trade with China. Do gooders in this country might start caring about the millions of political prisoners in forced labor or having their organs harvested by the Red Chinese Govt., versus the statistically insignificant health affects of cheap chinese toys on America's children.

Perspective and proportion might be a nice change of pace.

Posted by: dadmanly | Aug 21, 2007 12:58:21 PM

dadmanly, airbags and saccarine were not banned, precisely because society is able to appropriately gauge risks when making public health decisions. Vioxx, of course, didn't make the cut, and that was probably a good thing. "Side effects include diahrrea and vomitting" means, well, you can just stop taking it if that happens to you. "Side effects include possible sudden death," well, you really can't make a decision like that if a drug is going to be called "safe"" by the FDA.

Posted by: Tyro | Aug 21, 2007 1:09:43 PM

Exactly.

And you have pointed out the source of my frustration with the Democratic party: its signal inability to identify and argue the points of interest to many moderates (e.g., the mommies who vote Republican because they want the government to "protect" their children).

Posted by: damozel | Aug 21, 2007 6:32:55 PM

I used to eat at the Medici (U. of Chicago BA 1978), and sometimes the food was perilously close to being poisonous; it sure wasn't healthy. We ate there anyway because the dorms were even worse. The food at the Medici has improved since, probably due at least in part to increased competition, which certainly fits with the Chicago School mindset. That said, all these arguments assume well-informed consumers, which often isn't the case; or consumers who lack other better options, as was true for us, or most callously, that it's ok for someone to fall over dead at the Medici, thus signaling to other consumers to stay away. Makes the case for regulation for me.

Posted by: beckya57 | Aug 21, 2007 8:13:41 PM

I used to eat at the Medici

Ohhhh, it's a restaurant of some kind. Well, I feel better, because I'd never heard of the Medicis being involved in foodservice.

Posted by: Stephen | Aug 21, 2007 8:19:59 PM

They were involved in poisoning people, though.

Posted by: Sanpete | Aug 21, 2007 8:31:09 PM

- Chinese factories arent unregulated.

- Mattel's recall applied to dozens of countries. Is this recall indicative of systemic failings in all said countries or just the US?

- I notice much sniggering at the idea of companies facing market pressures to ensure safety. This despite the recall in question resulting from mattel's own internal review; not a single regulatory body of any national origin having identified the problem.

- Is there even a trend? there is little point speculating on the cause of an unestablished effect. Maybe there has been a great upturn in the number of unsafe products hitting the market during the bush years, but if there has i'm ignorant of the fact and would like someone to point me to the figures.

Posted by: the invisible pimp hand | Aug 22, 2007 6:37:57 AM

I don't think the Medici would stay in business very long if they took to poisoning their customers.

I dunno about that - the Borgia did and they managed...

Posted by: ajay | Aug 22, 2007 11:00:17 AM

- I notice much sniggering at the idea of companies facing market pressures to ensure safety. This despite the recall in question resulting from mattel's own internal review; not a single regulatory body of any national origin having identified the problem.

Good for Mattel. However, the "sniggering" as you call it, is over the euphemistic invocation of the "self regulating market" with no recognition that it is essentially an argument for waiting until bad things happen on the assumption that the blowback will deter other companies from similar practices. Apostles of the "free market as the solution for everything" mantra would exhibit more integrity if they were forthright about the implicit human costs of what they advocate.

Posted by: WB Reeves | Aug 22, 2007 11:44:01 AM

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Posted by: judy | Oct 11, 2007 7:35:27 AM

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