Sunday, March 15, 2009

Banning Toxic Assets

During the last gasps of laissez-faire capitalism, note Conservative’s rage over Obama’s socialist-like attempts to stem the bleeding in our economy from deregulation and toxic assets, banning has become popular. We’re banning or thinking of banning lead in our fuel, phosphorus in dish soaps, bisphenol A in our water containers, ‘downer’ cows in our meat supply, carbon-dioxide emissions from energy production, and even a freshwater turtle harvest ban. Things we should have long ago banned because there was cause for concern—though not absolute certainty as our present economic system requires—are getting the official boot.

Maybe, with fiscal restraint in vogue, all kinds of bans will be possible. Since our economy is purging itself of toxic wastes (formerly assets), maybe environmentally toxic wastes will be unpopular too. Great big cars are looking dumb now, considering their blatant disregard for the world market, but maybe they’ll be outright banned because they’re embarrassing wasteful and economically toxic.

All this banning, prohibiting something somebody once thought was good but is now bad, is shocking. Bans are not conducive to traditional Capitalism. When you ban something like cholorfluorocarbons (ozone-depleting substances) or anything really, you are depriving someone from making a living. Though, I wouldn’t worry too much about an epidemic on banning new products because in this country the burden of proof is on the victim. If it makes it out of the lab, it’s a go. New and exciting products are sure to come.

However, that may have to wait awhile. Among the other casualties of the Great Recession, we’re going to have a job of it just using up the stuff that’s been accumulating in all those warehouses. Tons of goods that people cannot or will not buy are piling up. Even cheap, people are hesitant to buy more stuff because their jobs might go or their credit card company might give up on them. The bubble has burst; that dog won’t hunt; whatever, stuff is piling up and maybe it’s time to rethink about how we create new stuff.

While we are banning stuff we should have banned long ago but were afraid to because consumers wanted them, maybe this is a time to consider not making potentially lousy products that screw up the environment—just because we can. Maybe it’s time to stand back and think about our way of life, especially our economy and our environment. Instead of exploding old buildings (which are great entertainment) when we’re done with them, we could disassemble them carefully and find a market for every bit of construction material. Our mantra could be: Nothing goes in the landfill. A market for everything. Sounds like sound science and business practices. We wouldn’t need bans.

For, the problem with bans is that by the time sufficient data has been acquired making bans necessary, it’s usually too late. New stuff that doesn’t kill everyone in the laboratory might if left to radiate out into the environment. If we thought about how new projects affected our environment more and what would ‘amaze and delight’ the consumer less, we might not have so many of these toxic assets bubbles and these Jonny-come-lately bans.

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