The Precautionary Principle Is Biased Against the New, and Ignores the Risks of the Old

(p. 250) In general the Precautionary Principle is biased against anything new. Many established technologies and “natural” processes have unexamined faults as great as those of any new technology. But the Precautionary Principle establishes a drastically elevated threshold for things that are new. In effect it grandfathers in the risks of the old, or the “nat-(p. 251)ural.” A few examples: Crops raised without the shield of pesticides generate more of their own natural pesticides to combat insects, but these indigenous toxins are not subject to the Precautionary Principle because they aren’t “new.” The risks of new plastic water pipes are not compared with the risks of old metal pipes. The risks of DDT are not put in context with the old risks of dying of malaria.

Source:
Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

Chinese Peasants Applied Precautionary Principle to Scythe Technology

(p. 249) In a letter Orville Wright wrote to his inventor friend Henry Ford, Wright recounts a story he heard from a missionary stationed in China. Wright told Ford the story for the same reason I tell it here: as a cautionary tale about speculative risks. The missionary wanted to improve the laborious way the Chinese peasants in his province harvested grain. The local farmers clipped the stalks with some kind of small hand shear. So the missionary had a scythe shipped in from America and demonstrated its superior productivity to an enthralled crowd. “The next morning, however, a delegation came to see the missionary. The scythe must be destroyed at once. What, they said, if it should fall into the hands of thieves; a whole field could be cut and carried away in a single night.” And so the scythe was banished, progress stopped, because nonusers could imagine a possible–but wholly improbable–way it could significantly harm their society.

Source:
Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

Millions Die Due to Precautionary Principle Ban of DDT

(p. 248) . . . , malaria infects 300 million to 500 million people worldwide, causing 2 million deaths per year. It is debilitating to those who don’t die and leads to cyclic poverty. But in the 1950s the level of malaria was reduced by 70 percent by spraying the insecticide DDT around the insides of homes. DDT was so successful as an insecticide that farmers eagerly sprayed it by the tons on cotton fields–and the molecule’s by-products made their way into the water cycle and eventually into fat cells in animals. Biologists blamed it for a drop in reproduction rates for some predatory birds, as well as local die-offs in some fish and aquatic life species. Its use and manufacture were banned in the United States in 1972. Other countries followed suit. Without DDT spraying, however, malaria cases in Asia and Africa began to rise again to deadly pre-1950s levels. Plans to reintroduce programs for household spraying in malarial Africa were blocked by the World Bank and other aid agencies, who refused to fund them. A treaty signed in 1991 by 91 countries and the EU agreed to phase out DDT altogether. They were relying on the precautionary principle: DDT was probably bad; better safe than sorry. In fact DDT had never been shown to hurt humans, and the environmental harm from the miniscule amounts of DDT applied in homes had not been measured. But nobody could prove it did not cause harm, despite its proven ability to do good.

Source:
Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.
(Note: ellipsis added.)

The Precautionary Principle Stops Technological Progress

(p. 247) All versions of the Precautionary Principle hold this axiom in common: A technology must be shown to do no harm before it is embraced. It must be proven to be safe before it is disseminated. If it cannot be proven safe, it should be prohibited, curtailed, modified, junked, or ignored. In other words, the first response to a new idea should be inaction until its safety is established. When an innovation appears, we should pause. Only after a new technology has been deemed okay by the certainty of science should we try to live with it.
On the surface, this approach seems reasonable and prudent. Harm must be anticipated and preempted. Better safe than sorry. Unfortunately, the Precautionary Principle works better in theory than in practice. “The precautionary principle is very, very good for one thing–stopping technological progress,” says philosopher and consultant Max More. Cass R. Sunstein, who devoted a book to debunking the principle, says, “We must challenge the Precautionary Principle not because it leads in bad directions, but because read for all it is worth, it leads in no direction at all.”

Source:
Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

$30 Million First National Bank Regulatory Costs Due to Dodd-Frank Replacing Clear Rules with Regulator “Wild Card” Leeway

(p. 1D) The president of First National of Nebraska, the nation’s largest privately held banking firm, said new federal regulatory and compliance efforts stand to cost the company as much as $30 million this year.
“It is a big uncertainty in the banking world,” said Dan O’Neill, speaking Wednesday at the company’s annual meeting in Omaha. “They are not operating off of concrete rules. A lot of it is their interpretation.”
The federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was formed as a result of the federal Dodd-Frank laws passed in 2010 after widespread bank failures and bailouts using taxpayer money. . . .
. . .
The bureau, he said, worries banks because there is not a “clear body of rules” from which the regulator is operating in evaluating the fairness of a bank’s business practices. He said the agency’s regulators have a lot of leeway in deciding what to do af-(p. 2D)ter examining a bank; penalties for running afoul include fines.
“So it is a bit of a wild card,” he said.

For the full story, see:
Russell Hubbard. “First National Chief Says Regulatory Costs Mounting.” Omaha World-Herald (THURSDAY, JUNE 20, 2013): 1D-2D.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The Eccentric History of How Bureaucratic Paper-Pushing Drives Clerks Crazy

TheDemonOfWritingBK2013-05-13.jpg

Source of book image: http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1360928417l/15904345.jpg

(p. C4) If paperwork studies have an unofficial standard-bearer and theoretician, it’s Mr. Kafka. In “The Demon of Writing” he lays out a concise if eccentric intellectual history of people’s relationship with the paperwork that governs (and gums up) so many aspects of modern life. The rise of modern bureaucracy is a well-established topic in sociology and political science, where it is often related as a tale of increasing order and rationality. But the paper’s-eye view championed by Mr. Kafka tells a more chaotic story of things going wrong, or at least getting seriously messy.

It’s an idea that makes perfect sense to any modern cubicle dweller whose overflowing desk stands as a rebuke to the utopian promise of the paperless office. But Mr. Kafka traces the modern age of paperwork to the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, which guaranteed citizens the right to request a full accounting of the government. An explosion of paper followed, along with jokes, gripes and tirades against the indignity of rule by paper-pushing clerks, a fair number of whom, judging from the stories in Mr. Kafka’s book, went mad.

For the full story, see:
JENNIFER SCHUESSLER. “The Paper Trail Through History.” The New York Times (Mon., December 17, 2012): C1 & C4.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 16, 2012.)

Kafka’s book, mentioned above, is:
Kafka, Ben. The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork. Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books, 2012.

KafkaBenAuthor2013-05-13.jpg “Ben Kafka, author of “The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork.”” Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

Harry Reid Hires GE Employee to Be His Chief Tax Policy Advisor

The “Capture Theory” associated with scholars George Stigler and Gabriel Kolko says that government regulatory bodies tend to be captured by the companies that they are intended to regulate. Stigler and Kolko would not be surprised by the passage quoted below.

(p. B5) . . . on Jan. 25, Mr. Reid’s office announced that he had appointed Cathy Koch as chief adviser to the majority leader for tax and economic policy. The news release lists Ms. Koch’s admirable and formidable experience in the public sector. “Prior to joining Senator Reid’s office,” the release says, “Koch served as tax chief at the Senate Finance Committee.”

It’s funny, though. The notice left something out. Because immediately before joining Mr. Reid’s office, Ms. Koch wasn’t in government. She was working for a large corporation.
Not just any corporation, but quite possibly the most influential company in America, and one that arguably stands to lose the most if there were any serious tax reform that closed corporate loopholes. Ms. Koch arrives at the senator’s office by way of General Electric.
Yes, General Electric, the company that paid almost no taxes in 2010. Just as the tax reform debate is heating up, Mr. Reid has put in place a person who is extraordinarily positioned to torpedo any tax reform that might draw a dollar out of G.E. — and, by extension, any big corporation.
Omitting her last job from the announcement must have merely been an oversight. By the way, no rules prevent Ms. Koch from meeting with G.E. or working on issues that would affect the company.

For the full story, see:
JESSE EISINGER, ProPublica. “A Revolving Door in Washington With Spin, but Less Visibility.” The New York Times (Thurs., February 21, 2013): B5.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date February 20, 2013.)