Wednesday, December 15, 2010

An Extraordinary Convergence

Mark this day -- the fifteenth of December, 2010. Within hours of each other, two news organizations at such opposite poles as National Public Radio and National Review have put up stories that illustrate the same phenomenon: the craziness of over-regulation without thought for the consequences, and the refusal to acknowledge or take responsibility for the consequences.

Take the NPR story first: it is about the unintended consequences of regulations removing the phosphates from kitchen and laundry detergents:

Is your dishwasher not working the way it used to? Earlier this year, with little fanfare, detergent makers reworked their formulas.

This was supposed to be good for waterways. But it turned a simple chore into a frustrating mystery for many people across the country.

A couple of months ago, Sandra Young from Vernon, Fla., started to notice that something was seriously amiss with her dishes.

"The pots and pans were gray, the aluminum was starting to turn black, the glasses had fingerprints and lip prints still on them, and they were starting to get this powdery look to them," Vernon says. "I'm like, oh, my goodness, my dishwasher must be dying; I better get a new dishwasher."

Young's not alone. Many people across the country are tearing out their hair over stained flatware, filmy glasses and ruined dishes.
The reason for the deteriorating results is not strange or difficult:
This summer, detergent makers took phosphates out of their detergents.

Seventeen states banned phosphates from dishwasher detergents because the chemical compounds also pollute lakes, bays and streams. They create algae blooms and starve fish of oxygen.
And because seventeen states banned phosphates, the result for national manufacturers was the same as though all fifty states had banned them:
Susan Baba from Procter & Gamble says the company had no choice. It just wasn't feasible to make detergent with phosphates for some states and without them for others.
But bureaucrats did not foresee the environmental consequences in the real world:
"You know, this isn't really a huge environmental win," [Susan Baba] says.

That's because phosphates are wonder ingredients. They not only strip food and grease from dishes but also prevent crud from getting reattached during the wash. So she says without phosphates, people have to wash or rinse their dishes before they put them in the dishwasher, which wastes water. Or they run their dishwasher twice, which wastes electricity.
So people end up using more water and more electricity just to get their dishes as clean as they used to be after a single washing. That's a result one can be proud of.

Now, go to this absolutely riveting piece by Victor Davis Hanson at National Review, called "Two Californias":
The last three weeks I have traveled about, taking the pulse of the more forgotten areas of central California. I wanted to witness, even if superficially, what is happening to a state that has the highest sales and income taxes, the most lavish entitlements, the near-worst public schools (based on federal test scores), and the largest number of illegal aliens in the nation, along with an overregulated private sector, a stagnant and shrinking manufacturing base, and an elite environmental ethos that restricts commerce and productivity without curbing consumption.

During this unscientific experiment, three times a week I rode a bike on a 20-mile trip over various rural roads in southwestern Fresno County. I also drove my car over to the coast to work, on various routes through towns like San Joaquin, Mendota, and Firebaugh. And near my home I have been driving, shopping, and touring by intent the rather segregated and impoverished areas of Caruthers, Fowler, Laton, Orange Cove, Parlier, and Selma. My own farmhouse is now in an area of abject poverty and almost no ethnic diversity; the closest elementary school (my alma mater, two miles away) is 94 percent Hispanic and 1 percent white, and well below federal testing norms in math and English.
What follows is a vivid description of the economic devastation wrought in the last 25 years by lax immigration and welfare policies, by environmental folly (restricting water delivery to the most fertile land in California in order to provide "protection" to the delta smelt -- see this previous post), and by bureaucratic obsession with precisely the wrong things. You must read the whole piece to get its cumulative effect; excerpts here cannot do it justice -- but here is one:
California coastal elites may worry about the oxygen content of water available to a three-inch smelt in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta, but they seem to have no interest in the epidemic dumping of trash, furniture, and often toxic substances throughout California’s rural hinterland. Yesterday, for example, I rode my bike by a stopped van just as the occupants tossed seven plastic bags of raw refuse onto the side of the road. . . .

In fact, trash piles are commonplace out here — composed of everything from half-empty paint cans and children’s plastic toys to diapers and moldy food. I have never seen a rural sheriff cite a litterer, or witnessed state EPA workers cleaning up these unauthorized wastelands. So I would suggest to Bay Area scientists that the environment is taking a much harder beating down here in central California than it is in the Delta. Perhaps before we cut off more irrigation water to the west side of the valley, we might invest some green dollars into cleaning up the unsightly and sometimes dangerous garbage that now litters the outskirts of our rural communities.

We hear about the tough small-business regulations that have driven residents out of the state, at the rate of 2,000 to 3,000 a week. But from my unscientific observations these past weeks, it seems rather easy to open a small business in California without any oversight at all, or at least what I might call a “counter business.” I counted eleven mobile hot-kitchen trucks that simply park by the side of the road, spread about some plastic chairs, pull down a tarp canopy, and, presto, become mini-restaurants. There are no “facilities” such as toilets or washrooms. But I do frequently see lard trails on the isolated roads I bike on, where trucks apparently have simply opened their draining tanks and sped on, leaving a slick of cooking fats and oils. Crows and ground squirrels love them; they can be seen from a distance mysteriously occupied in the middle of the road.

This is simply great investigation, and great writing: California's major news media have missed this entire story. What I mainly want to point out, however, is the extraordinary convergence between Professor Hansen's conclusions and those in the NPR story cited above. Let me set up his conclusions with this quotation:
Do diversity concerns, as in lack of diversity, work both ways? Over a hundred-mile stretch, when I stopped in San Joaquin for a bottled water, or drove through Orange Cove, or got gas in Parlier, or went to a corner market in southwestern Selma, my home town, I was the only non-Hispanic — there were no Asians, no blacks, no other whites. We may speak of the richness of “diversity,” but those who cherish that ideal simply have no idea that there are now countless inland communities that have become near-apartheid societies, where Spanish is the first language, the schools are not at all diverse, and the federal and state governments are either the main employers or at least the chief sources of income — whether through emergency rooms, rural health clinics, public schools, or social-service offices. An observer from Mars might conclude that our elites and masses have given up on the ideal of integration and assimilation, perhaps in the wake of the arrival of 11 to 15 million illegal aliens.

Again, I do not editorialize, but I note these vast transformations over the last 20 years that are the paradoxical wages of unchecked illegal immigration from Mexico, a vast expansion of California’s entitlements and taxes, the flight of the upper middle class out of state, the deliberate effort not to tap natural resources, the downsizing in manufacturing and agriculture, and the departure of whites, blacks, and Asians from many of these small towns to more racially diverse and upscale areas of California.

Then Professor Hansen poses a paradox: why is it that illegal immigrants are the first to tout their strong allegiance to the countries they came from, and to insult the courtesies of their host country, while at the same time protesting vehemently any proposed measure or enforcement which might lead to their deportation? He responds:
I think I know the answer to this paradox. Missing entirely in the above description is the attitude of the host, which by any historical standard can only be termed “indifferent.” California does not care whether one broke the law to arrive here or continues to break it by staying. It asks nothing of the illegal immigrant — no proficiency in English, no acquaintance with American history and values, no proof of income, no record of education or skills. It does provide all the public assistance that it can afford (and more that it borrows for), and apparently waives enforcement of most of California’s burdensome regulations and civic statutes that increasingly have plagued productive citizens to the point of driving them out. How odd that we overregulate those who are citizens and have capital to the point of banishing them from the state, but do not regulate those who are aliens and without capital to the point of encouraging millions more to follow in their footsteps. How odd — to paraphrase what Critias once said of ancient Sparta — that California is at once both the nation’s most unfree and most free state, the most repressed and the wildest.
So California overregulates the only things it can touch -- and drives out the last vestiges of its productive economy in doing so -- while through laxity and indifference its very heart is being transformed into the equivalent of a dirt-poor, third-world country, with all its environmental, social and economic problems. The regulators obsessed with the volumes of toilet tanks are doing nothing to prevent the emergence of an entire culture where outdoor "facilities" are what people use. Those officials who fine people for not recycling trash correctly do nothing about the piles and piles of trash simply dumped along rural roads.

But they really feel good about their regulations, because they embody all the right priorities.

Now do you appreciate the extraordinary convergence which occurred on this day? Maybe something good can come out of this. I wait with bated breath to see if this was a one-time phenomenon, or whether people from both poles of the social divide really are starting to come to their senses.


  1. "Now do you appreciate the extraordinary convergence which occurred on this day? Maybe something good can come out of this. I wait with bated breath to see if this was a one-time phenomenon"

    Mere coincidence. Sorry counselor, I'm not holding my breath.

    TEc and California are rough mirrors of each other.

  2. Clarification.

    It's more accurate to say:

    TEc's leadership and California's leadership are rough mirrors of each other.

    TEc laity and California citizens will reap (and have reaped) the consequences of this leadership.

  3. This has alerted me to a terrible injustice. I have been blaming the wrong person for my dirty dishes.

  4. ROTFLMHO, UP -- one of the all-time great comments at this blog!

  5. I don't think they use phosphates in dish detergent here in Japan, and there's never a problem.

    (It) makes me wonder if the issue should have been handled as a redesign of environmentally friendly dishwashers.

  6. There isn't the same problem here in Japan, and from what I understand, there aren't any phosphates in dish detergents. When your effluent is going out to the same place where the evening's fish dinner is coming from, you think about these things.

    (It) makes me wonder if the issue shouldn't have been approached as one encouraging/requiring environmentally friendly dishwashers?