Monday, June 10, 2013

Pinto Logic

I've had a couple of head injuries over the course of my lifetime.  Who hasn't?  As the author of this piece in Bicycling magazine puts it, in the old days you'd take a couple of days off because of dizziness, pop some aspirin and drink some ginger ale for the nausea.  There's a lot of research going into preventing concussions these days, though, and I highly recommend the piece if you or someone you love uses helmets. 

About a third of the way through though comes this stunning passage demonstrating just how safe we are from the whims of unelected, unaccountable government bureaucrats who've never worked in the private sector:

Dave Halstead, technical director of the the Southern Impact Research Center, is head of the ASTM helmet subcommittee. He's widely considered one of the world's top experts. And he's frustrated. "We're on our ninth or tenth revision" to the 1999 CPSC standard, he told me. "Meanwhile, the government hasn't moved at all."
CPSC officials are frustrated, too. Though none would speak on the record, one high-ranking official told me the agency knew about the concerns over concussions. They have followed the work of Halstead's helmet committee. What keeps them from revising their outdated 1999 standard is an onerous set of cost-benefit requirements that go far beyond that of any other government agency. If they can't make an overwhelming case to change a rule, it doesn't get touched. The requirement works like this: If an incremental safety improvement results in higher manufacturing costs, the realized value of the improvement must outweigh those costs. Preventing a theoretical number of concussions—that's an extremely hard dollar value to prove.

In Congressional testimony last year, CPSC commissioner Robert S. Adler said the provisions make rule changes "almost impossible." In the 31 years since the CPSC became subject to those requirements, the agency has promulgated a total of nine new consumer-product-safety rules. Nine.

Congress in recent years has made it easier for the CPSC to swiftly change rules for children's products such as cribs. But nothing else. Table-saw accidents result in more than 4,000 amputations and 40,000 emergency treatments every year. CPSC ­officials have struggled for eight years to improve the table-saw safety standard, and Adler says his agency is still years away.

The government standard for bike helmets will in all likelihood­ never change. "With the CPSC, those standards are carved into stone," David Thom told me. "It may take an act of Congress to revise them."
I think this comes as a surprise to the author, and it was certainly a surprise to me and probably you as well.  Let's put this in perspective: Despite decades of product development, the high-water mark for regulation happened in the late 70s.  Since then essentially all consumer product safety regulation has stopped.

With all the concern about government regulations putting the boot on the neck of the struggling entrepreneur, about how the United States (and Canada) have never been less free, who would have thought that the struggling entrepreneur has actually been freed from the attentions of the over-enthusiastic civil servants at the Consumer Product Safety Commission, who've been prevented from intervening between said entrepreneur's shoddy products and said entrepreneur's customers, since the early days of Reagan's first term in 1982?

Assumptions are something of a fascination for me, as you may have noticed if you've read more than this post.  My very first post was about how shocked I was to discover when I moved back to Canada a few years ago that the socialist paradise of my youth had been dismantled in favor of whatever mean and cranky policies the local flat-taxers thought would work, and all so the country could get right with the bond market and appeal to the 30% of the country that thinks things went south when women were allowed to wear pants.  

But that the CPSC has to apply the very same cold logic that underlay Ford's Pinto decision is an immense surprise.  Its a surprise precisely because we invented the CPSC, as a society, to tilt the balance against Ford's Pinto logic.  We did not, as a society, think that the best net result was to enshrine Ford's reasoning process into law.  But it turns out that, unbeknownst to almost all of us, we've been living in something of a libertarian paradise all this time.

And not to put to paranoid a point on it, but that the CPSC needs to weight the cost in human life against the cost to retool assembly lines when proposing rules that fix product safety issues partly explains why conservatives, the CoC and the GOP have been so opposed to any kind of broad-baseline national health care plan in the US.  Obamacare makes it easier to collect and analyze statistics on the longitudinal costs of negligent product design, which may tilt the balance in the Pinto Logic balance sheet toward retooling the assembly line.

One more point: there's this very common exercise, to ask "stupid or evil?" when you see decisions like this.  Given what we now know about both concussion prevention in helmets, and the effects of lead exposure on decision making, we should also ask "lead or head injury?"

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