Mind the Gaps. Industry won’t Police itself

Greg Palast

By Gregory Palast for The Observer/Guardian UK

Here’s something to put your mind at ease. The federal government payroll in the United States includes 150 bureaucrats whose job is to measure the space between the mattresses and railings on bunk beds.

While the rest of America is busy making things people can use, these squadrons armed with rulers launch surprise raids on furniture stores hunting for the latest threat to society: the killer child bed.

If a railing is even half an inch off the specification in their rule book, the bed is removed.

Never mind that the industry issued its own strict, voluntary safety standards. So far, the bureaucrats have saved us from 513,000 ‘criminal’ beds, costing manufacturers nearly $100 million. That’s Version A. Now try Version B.

One evening in May 1994, James Mayernick and his wife found their visiting nephew, Nicholas, hanging from the top cot of a brand new bunk bed. When the boy struggled to free himself, the railing pushed his head into the mattress. The gap between rail and mattress, an inch more than allowed, permitted his body to slip through but not his head.

Nicholas suffocated – the fifty-fourth child to die trapped in bed rails before the government campaign.

So which version tickles your fancy? In the Version A world view, the US has become America the Panicked, where self-serving lawyers have created a lucrative industry of scaremongering, hunting down dangers that are rare or non-existent. The result, say Version A advocates, the deregulators, is the mushrooming of giant bureaucracies whose sole effect is to hog-tie business with nitpicking regulations.

I won’t deny it. America, which touts itself as the land of unfettered capitalism, has the world’s most elaborate, pervasive, rule-spewing system of regulating private industry.

American government agencies such as the Consumer Product Safety Commission – the bed police – have exploded to a scale unimagined in Europe. For example, the UK has 265 nuclear plant inspectors. The US, with not many more operating plants, has 4,000.

And for good reason: America tried hoping the market would reward enlightened producers and drive out rogues. Not a chance.

The bed that killed the Mayernicks’ nephew was manufactured by El Rancho Furniture of Lutts, Tennessee, long after the industry published its own voluntary standards.

How did America become headquarters for world capitalism and the society with the tightest constraints on private industry?

It all goes back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Andrew Jackson ran for President on a platform of outlawing that dangerous new legal concoction… the corporation.

Jackson and his ally, Thomas Jefferson, feared this faceless, heartless creature made of stock certificates rather than people, which could not be held accountable personally for their evils before courts or mobs. Jackson’s manifesto said: ‘Corporations have neither bodies to kick nor souls to damn.’

President Jackson could not stop the corporate dreadnought. Instead, he established regulation. The reformers argue that we no longer need the reams of rules and the phalanx of agency inspectors. Enlightened corporations now understand the long-term advantage of protecting the public interest voluntarily.

Oh, please. Catalina Furniture of California resisted the government order to recall 5,000 of its bunk beds despite a report that, as well as the Mayernicks’ nephew, a child aged three was caught between mattress and rails. The firm argued that action was unnecessary because the child survived.

Recently I was nauseated by a full-page advert run by Mobil Oil, soon to be Exxon-Mobil, topped with the headline: ‘Two of the Safest Ships Ever Built’. It announced the launch of a new double-hulled oil tanker which, trumpets Mobil, could ‘have prevented most of history’s collision-caused oil spills’.

Indeed, it would have. However, Mobil-Exxon PR men, preening in their double-hulled self-congratulations, fail to mention that in the Seventies the oil giants successfully sued the government of Alaska, blocking a law requiring they use double-hulled ships. As a direct consequence, the single-hulled Exxon Valdez destroyed 1,200 miles of Alaska’s coastline.

Mobil-Exxon now sees the light – but only because, after the great spill, Congress, under public pressure, rammed the double-hull rule down Big Oil’s corporate throats.

Today, the Jacksonian compact is under assault, not just from Republicans – we expect them to be craven toadies to business interests – but from Vice-President Al Gore. The public knows little about Gore, but our corporations do. He’s their guy, pushing a programme called, ‘Re-Inventing Government’, which all but dynamites Jefferson’s head off Mount Rushmore.

Gore has repackaged all the hate-the-government blather which once spewed from Newt Gingrich. But his tirades against red tape and goofy rules mask a more treacherous agenda. The Veep’s latest re-invention would permit industry to ‘peer review’ any new government regulation.

This would add new levels of bureaucracy, procedural delay and red tape. But it accomplishes the goal of General Motors and Alliance USA, a business lobby that devised the plan for Gore, to choke off tougher safety and environmental rules. Alliance USA members have given a total of $113m to political campaigns in the last three years.

There are omens that Gore’s regulatory reform bug has blown across the Atlantic to infect New Labour. The Orwellian anti-government rhetoric has certainly arrived. The Department of Trade and Industry’s regulatory department has been re-christened the department of deregulation.

And, little noticed in Tony Blair’s Cabinet reshuffle last summer was the political beheading of Nigel Griffiths, Consumer Affairs Minister, whose plan for a US-style consumer product safety commission was dangerously off-message.

And the message is: this Government does not like government. Back in the States last week, I spoke with one of the little bureaucrats with a ruler, CPSC inspector Robin Ross.

Measuring bed rails ‘is one of the things I like best’ about the job, she says. It is a break from her main chore, taking evidence from families of children hanged, sliced, drowned and burned. Sometimes, when her day is done, ‘I just sit in my car and cry’.

I asked her about the best-selling book, The Death of Common Sense: How Law is Suffocating America. The author, Philip K Howard, Gore’s deregulation guru, is fond of jokes about government agents ‘who even measure the number of inches surrounding a railing’.

Robin acknowledges the need for a second look at rule-making. But she notes that it wasn’t the law that suffocated Nicholas Mayernick…

* * * * *

Gregory Palast’s other investigative reports can be found at www.GregPalast.com where you can also subscribe to Palast’s column.

Gregory Palast’s column “Inside Corporate America” appears fortnightly in the
Observer’s Business section. Nominated Business Writer of the Year (UK Press
Association – 2000), Investigative Story of the Year (Industrial. Society – 1999), Financial Times David Thomas Prize (1998).