Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Shrinking World

Our world is shrinking.
Not our planet, although if the arctic ice continues melting, the amount of available land will certainly continue to shrink. I mean our world, our environment...what we perceive as "the world".

We used to live in our own cities, and the boundaries were defined. We bought produce from the market, our staple pantry items from the corner store. The corner store was supplied from a local farmer. Who grew their own crops.

There were bigger companies, too. But their supplies, again, were limited by distance.

We used to travel through books, and talking on phones seemed miraculous. Our president was a mythical figure, and our state representative might be a vague idea as well. We lived in the here; and if we didn't like what was going on in our local community...we could do something about it, or we could find a better place to live.

That doesn't work anymore. We live globally. Our kitchen is stocked from all over the planet (Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil, Italy); our cupboards are filled with merchandise made in China from parts and pieces gathered from a selection of countries. Our corner store is located on our desktop, if not our palmpilot. GPS makes us feel right at ease in any "new" location...without even meeting the eyes of a local gas station attendandant.

The internet informs us not only of our local news but whats going on in Pakistan. The smaller the world gets, the more out of control we feel; and so the government makes new laws, new legislature meant to protect us from our own inadequacies.

Don't homeschool. Even if the public school is failing your child, the government challenges you to jump through hoops to keep your child home. Someone has to fail, even if it is your child.
Mass-vaccinate. Sure, hundreds die each year. But that's so thousands can live. They don't dare give freedom of choice to trained individual doctors who know a patient's history. No, much better to make that decision without looking a child in the face. Otherwise, they might hesitate; knowing the risks.
Forget compounding drugs. Someone, somewhere can take advantage of that. Besides, it's too risky. The compounding pharmacist might make a mistake. And that would be dangerous, at least as dangerous as anaphylaxis from the excipient used to bind the drug commercially. Much better to leave the statistically insignificant helpless. From a boardroom, they can't see them suffering anyways.
Crush the small farmer. They can't afford fancy machinery, they can't afford to lose a room full of carcasses and they can't dedicate an entire field's yield to testing. They can't provide a separate bathroom with proper sewage to the handfull of customers they have. They can't hire help unless they can afford to build a new housing unit. They can't charge for tours. Nevermind that they have such a limited distribution and work slowly enough for their production to be a safer choice than whats turned out at a frightening speed by bug businesses; nevermind that they have a personal rapport with customers and an intense personal drive to keep their customers happy. Forget the fact that customers are thinking individuals who can look around and make choices for themselves whether or not to risk eating the meat, or grain, or homemade apple pie that's for sale. They can't compete with billion dollar agricultural giants, so they can drown.
And now toys. Toys, and clothes, and hair accessories. All the little unique items found in church bazaars and craft fairs and online from individual entrepreneurs are being threatened. Mothers who work from home to produce slings, and cloth diapers, and handcrafted baby and child items are threatened. The retiree who spends his days creating heirloom quality children's toys in his backyard shop for a bit of supplemental income is threatened.
Why? Why, because those big companies...the ones who produce massive quantities of colorful, plastic future-landfill fodder...cut a few too many corners. They got so big, and the world so small, that they harmed a few too many kids. Too much lead showed up in items meant to be mouthed. And the government took action, looking only at the big companies, the CPSC created a Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act. And this act threatens the livelihood of thousands, just when the economy is at its weakest.
The worst thing is, it's disguised as a good thing.
In order to stay in business, all a company needs to do is send a portion of each batch of toys or clothing off for independant testing. They simply need to pass a lead screening, and prove that they meet the governments standards. It would be tragic if that hardwood race car carved by Joe happened to have lead in it. Or if that christening gown, with hand tatted lace, was laced with poisons. Who would guess? Certainly not the people who produced them in the first place, the ones whose livelihood depends on every customer's satisfaction.
It sounds reasonable until you do the math. In order to stay in business, small business owners would need to raise their prices astronomically. A $10 barrette set would go for close to $5000. After conservative testing had been paid for, anyways.
Whether I want to or not, I'm stuck buying the cheap ones from China. From a company that can afford to take risks with my child's safety, because the odds of that small batch of lead painted barrettes getting found are minute. The government will have much better luck tracking down small businesses who make a slight error, don't you think? And the small business owner won't have the resources to recover.
With price tags like that, entrepreneurs won't be able to get started. Famous Amos ate a Nestle Tollhouse cookie and said "Hey, someone should sell these." So he tried. And when it worked, he earned enough to grow and slowly start doing it "right".
If he'd been required to buy the production equipment, get a license, and have a third of his first batch tossed for testing purposes we'd never have found pre-packaged chocolate chip cookies on the store shelves.

What futures will be harmed because a visionaries hands were tied with red tape?
And when will it end? Where do we draw the line? When do we, as a society, see that parents can make the decision to parent? There is no "right" answer for everyone. It's okay to make mistakes, that's how we learn. The trouble is, individuals need the freedom to make mistakes, while corporations need the constrains of laws to keep them from forgetting their responsibility to each individual.

Our world needs to shrink again, in the opposite direction. We need to start shopping at our local stores, where our taxes stay in our own community, and we support people who live here, too. We need to be governed by our local officials, who can see our unique needs better in person. We need to be trusted to make decisions, and given full disclosure so that we can make an informed decision. And we need to learn not to simply pass the buck to the next guy. When we make mistakes, we need to own up to them. Just as we hold others responsible for their own errors.

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