The microfruits of capitalism

The decrying of “burdensome regulation” is often heard in our land. It discourages entrepreneurship; it’s leaving us behind in the global economy; it raises prices on everything we buy.

All true, to some extent.

But regulations don’t just happen. They are responses to excesses in the marketplace. They are necessarily imperfect responses; bureaucracy is not a precision instrument. Dodd-Frank, whatever its flaws, would not exist if the Wizards of Wall Street had a smidgen of foresight or conscience, if they’d been able to resist the temptation to make a quick billion off toxic derivatives and Collateralized Debt Obligations.

And now we have a new exhibit in our Gallery of Free Market Excess. It’s completely unnecessary, it’s hazardous to the environment, and even industry leaders acknowledge they don’t need it.

Mmmm, fish food!

Mmmm, fish food!

I’m talking about nonbiodegradable microbeads, “barely visible plastic scrubbing grains used in personal care products.” There’s a bill before the state legislature to outlaw them. John Herrick at VTDigger:

Environmentalists and water quality advocates want them outlawed because the non-biodegradable plastic waste is washed down the drain and slips through nearly all of the state’s wastewater treatment plants.

… No studies measure quantities of microbeads in Vermont’s waterways. But scientists who study Lake Champlain say the beads can be spotted along the shores.

Marine animals consume the microbeads, which can cause internal blockages. Scientists also say that toxic pollutants “attach themselves to the plastic beads like a sticker,” and then head up the food chain.

Who the hell thought it was a good idea to put teeny-tiny nonbiodegradable plastic bits into consumer products? Why do Vermont lawmakers have to spend their time debating a bill to ban them?

Well, now you know where regulations come from.

What’s worse, the microbeads are completely superfluous, according to Martin Wolf of Seventh Generation, a Vermont company that uses natural alternatives.

“Microbeads are nonessential. Substances exist that are mineral or biodegradable, perform the same function, and have no meaningful impact on the economics of the products in which they are used,” he told the Fish and Wildlife Committee.

Mike Thompson, who put his soul in escrow to take a job representing the Personal Care Products Council, says “the industry is committed to phasing out microbeads on a timely basis.”

Of course, his definition of “timely basis” may not be yours. The Vermont bill would ban microbeads on January 1, 2017. That’s too fast for Thompson; he wants December 31, 2017, to match a law already on the books in Illinois. And Jim Harrison, the ever-vigilant head of the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, “prefers a bill that gives retailers time to sell existing inventories.” What, two years isn’t enough?

How many bazillions of microbeads would be flushed into our rivers and lakes during the year 2017? Can’t the industry manage to make the change in two years, instead of three?

Government regulation is, at times, wasteful, inefficient, and counterproductive. The only thing worse than regulation, thanks to the madly-spinning engines of commerce, is no regulation.

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3 thoughts on “The microfruits of capitalism

  1. kevin ellis

    Agreed. But microbeads are easy. Try the Vermont College of Fine Arts effort to re-design its campus and the ongoing conflict with the Vermont Department of Historic Preservation. The college is a key part of an emerging, exciting Montpelier. They hired a great Boston design firm that gave them an exciting master plan that would make this small but mighty arts college into a national leader. They want to tear down something here and replace windows there. Lots of money (millions) riding on this project. The stakes for the college and the community are high. But HP tells them what kind of bricks to use, whether they can tear down an old garage and whether or not they can upgrade buildings. When does HP become a regulator/designer to the detriment of moving forward – and of course one person’s moving forward is another person’s bad development? It’s worth examining.

    Reply

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