Self-Interest and Consumers
By Frances B. Smith
As appeared in the April 1996 issue of Consumers' Research Magazine
Business-bashing is in vogue among policymakers, presidential candidates,
and pundits who
often charge that corporations put profits before people. They all seem to have forgotten that
companies benefit society precisely because they limit their objectives: Companies produce
profits by providing products or services of varying prices and quality to consumers and
businesses. As Adam Smith said, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or
the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest."
A recent case in point shows how this self-interest works to the
benefit of consumers. A trade
association for phone card issuers, United States Telecard Association (USTA), called with a
problem and asked for Consumer Alert's help -- not in putting a spin on the issue, but to help get
the word out to consumers who had bought worthless prepaid telephone cards.
Prepaid phone cards, long used in Europe, are taking off in the United
States and are one of the
fastest growing segments of the telecommunications industry. Now here's the trade group for
phone cards faced with a "bad apple" problem: one company's actions may taint the product in
consumers' minds and hamper that growth.
A company, USA Calling Company of Atlanta, Georgia, which isn't a
member of the industry
trade group, had distributed cards to be sold to consumers at retail outlets, and the cards didn't
work. The firm subsequently went out of business. Although some consumers stuck with those
cards did complain, the trade group estimated that tens of thousands of people who bought those
cards from major discount stores may not be aware of the problem.
Realizing that the bad apple could affect its member companies and
the future growth of phone
cards, the trade group got in touch with the retail stores that sold the cards, and those retailers
offered their customers reimbursement of the purchase price of the bum cards.
USTA didn't stop there: 10 of its members are going to provide all
consumers who bought the
non-working cards with new prepaid cards with the same face amount. They provided a special
800 number -- for a limited time -- for those customers to use to find out how to get the new
phone cards. The group also has an on-going consumer hotline for this and other phone card
problems: (800) 333-3513.
This example illustrates how producers' self-interest includes protecting
consumers from the bad
apples of business. They do this by policing themselves -- ensuring that the industry of which
they are part has standards of practice and ethical conduct. Unfortunately, the mechanics by
which businesses have an interest in scrutinizing their own practices is often overlooked.
Why are legitimate businesses interested in policing themselves?
Usually because they realize
that consumers have alternatives. If a particular market or segment of a market is perceived as
insecure, if consumers believe companies won't deliver what's promised, they'll switch to
competitive products or services.
The example also shows one reason why trade groups exist -- to create
quality standards for
members and to monitor adherence to those standards. In that way, trade groups increase the
comfort level of their members' current and potential customers. Sometimes anti-trust laws work
to block this function by narrowly viewing positive actions, such as standards setting, as barriers
to new competition.
Will responses like those of USTA eliminate all bad apples from the
phone card market? No, but
their action, aimed at making consumers whole, helps distinguish their members as good guys
and their industry as a responsible one. It is in legitimate businesses' self-interest to show their
customers that they stand behind their products. It's also in consumers' interest to get that
This point is not widely understood, especially in the media. The
bad apples often get
over-exposure in the news, with the implication that something needs to be done to protect
consumers from "industry-wide" practices. The media often underrate their importance as
providers of information to the public -- in some cases, information that could help consumers
sift the good from the bad. Instead, when the media view their role as helping to expand the role
of the regulatory state by treating every business as a bad apple, they help to raise consumers
costs -- costs that result from regulatory overkill.
Bad apples do need to be exposed, but they also can be isolated from
the bushel, so that they
don't spoil the rest. That's in industry's self-interest ... and consumers' best interest.
Consumers' Research columns
Comments? Questions? firstname.lastname@example.org
Consumers' Research Magazine
The Risks of Plasti-Phobia
by Frances B. Smith
Plastics are ubiquitous in our modern society. From packaging and
containers for consumer goods, foods, and beverages to plastic wrap,
health and hygiene equipment, such as blood bags and IV equipment,
to pipes, electronic equipment, and floor coverings – these are only a
sampling of the thousands of products consumers use or come into
contact with every day.
Most consumers take these products for granted and forget about how
the technology has greatly increased the choices consumers have in
their daily lives, but, more importantly, that these choices have been
made available to those less affluent.
Little attention, however, is focused on the characteristics of plastics
that improve our health and
well-being, not just our comfort levels – products that are easily sterilized, have low breakage,
and can be molded into countless shapes. These traits mean that doctors and patients can use
low-risk, one-time-use syringes and blood containers that increase the shelf-life of critical blood
supplies. Consumers can purchase products that are hygienic, tamper-proof, and in packages that
help many products retain their freshness.
Plastics, including those produced with polyvinyl chloride (PVC),
have been studied, tested, and
used safely for more than 40 years. Yet, despite scientific studies showing minimal or
nonexistant health risks with the plastics in current use, recent campaigns attacking these
products for purported health reasons threaten their future. The charges are that harmful
chemicals may leach out of the materials into foods and beverages or from plastic medical tubing
and cause adverse health effects.
Consumers should be concerned about plastics – concerned that many
plastics that contribute
significantly to health, hygiene, and innovation in product safety and durability might not be
around in the near future if activist groups’ misleading campaigns against them continue to strike
Consider that in a very short period of time – a matter of only months
– a carefully orchestrated
campaign has resulted in:
Toy manufacturers’ pulling flexible baby toys
made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) off the
market even when regulators and the producers acknowledge that no scientific evidence
supports such a step. (See "Greenpeace Targets Toymakers," CR, December 1998.)
Some manufacturers of PVC blood bags and IV equipment used in hospitals announcing they
plan to phase out PVC use, even though no scientific studies have shown any harm to
patients from their use and acceptable substitutes haven’t been developed. (Some hospitals
have been pressured to discontinue use of PVC medical equipment.)
Network television shows exposing the dangers of polycarbonate plastic baby bottles and
telling parents to throw them away or risk having their kids suffer from learning disabilities
and reproductive problems. (This hysteria was created by Consumer Reports touting one
study of 14 male mice.)
Some of the leaders of the coordinated fear-mongering campaigns include
the activist group
Greenpeace, Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports), Natural Resources Defense
Council, and Health Care Without Harm (an environmental coalition that includes Greenpeace,
the Chemical Impact Project, and several other more respected organizations that take their cues
on the issue from the more radical group leaders).
In earlier decades, several of these groups, most notably Greenpeace,
had campaigned heavily to
rid the world of chlorine in all of its applications, from the manufacture of plastics to water
purification. Considered extremist and dismissed by most sensible people, these views
nonetheless remained intact. Blocked by a frontal assault, they turned to a different strategy:
Take on plastic product lines one at a time and use the most vulnerable in our society – young
children, infants, and the seriously ill – as the purported victims of chlorine-based chemicals,
such as those used in plastics.
The real consumer harm could occur if Greenpeace, et. al. continue
to chalk up victories, and
critical uses of safe plastics fall one by one. After a win, the campaigners shift their focus to a
new target. Since plastics are used for so many products, they thus have an almost endless list of
potential "hits" – and some of those could be lethal.
In particular, the phaseout of the use of PVC in medical equipment
could itself present significant
risks. Currently, according to health care experts, there are no ready substitutes that provide the
flexibility, hygienic qualities, and, most important, the long history of safe use with patients.
Turning from a well understood and studied product with a long track record to an alternative
that might not have had such scrutiny could decrease, rather than increase, safety.
Another risk that fear-mongering campaigns create is the risk that
arises from misguided fears.
Scaring people, especially parents and the seriously ill, about negligible risks may also cause
them to overlook real risks in their families’ lives – poor diets, lack of exercise, obesity,
reckless driving, immoderate consumption of alcohol, for example.
While the risks of plastics may be minuscule, the risks of scare
campaigns are all too real.
Back to Consumer Alert
Consumers' Research columns
Also see Michael Fumento's webpage for more information on PVCs.
Comments? Questions? Mail to Consumer Alert
The Value of Time
By Frances B. Smith
Sometimes people in passing note that consumer goods and services
have gotten a lot more
expensive than they used to be. "When I was a kid, we could go to a movie for a quarter,"
grandparents often remark when musing on the high cost of that entertainment today.
Things do cost a lot more than was the case in the 1980s, the '70s,
the '60s, or a hundred years
ago. And it's difficult for consumers to get a handle on whether prices have gone up in real
terms. Of course, adjusting for inflation gives economists and policy makers a clearer picture of
real costs, but for the average consumer, it seems as if costs keep spiraling upward.
That's where the 1997 Annual Report of the Federal Reserve Bank of
Dallas can provide some
important insights into consumer prices over time. Titled "Time Well Spent: The Declining Real
Cost of Living in America," the featured essay uses a standard that doesn't change over time and
gives a clear picture of the cost of living. Researched and written by W. Michael Cox and
Richard Alm, the article shows the amount of work time then and now needed to buy specific
consumer goods and services. It looks at both necessities and luxuries in terms of how much time
a person would spend working to be able to afford a certain product or service 20, 50, 100 years
ago. That time at the prevailing average hourly rate is then compared to the time needed today to
buy a comparable product or service.
The results are astounding. Nearly one hundred years ago, the average
three-quarters of its income on basic necessities' food, clothing, and shelter. Now, the average
family spends somewhat over one-third. For example, the authors consider the work-time cost of
food items. The cost of a half-gallon of milk took 39 minutes of work in 1919, but only 7 minutes
in 1997. Purchasing a dozen eggs required 80 minutes of work back then, but only 5 minutes last
year. And, in perhaps their most dramatic food example, a 3-pound chicken has fallen from 2
hours, 37 minutes in 1919 to a mere 14 minutes in 1997.
Household appliances and household goods also show remarkable drops
in costs, even during
more recent periods. A clothes washer, for instance, cost 138 hours in 1956, but almost half that
--72 hours-- in 1970, and only 26 hours in 1997.
Lower costs for necessities and household goods mean more income
available for discretionary
uses, and the costs of transportation, travel, and entertainment also have dropped significantly.
For example, in 1930 a person would have to work 366 hours to pay for a coast-to-coast flight.
In 1951, that was down to 71 hours, while in 1997 the cost was a mere 16 hours.
Besides providing a fresh look at the cost of consumer products today
and yesterday, the essay
also presents a lively, almost lyrical paean to the workings of a free enterprise system as it
discusses the incentives markets provide for innovation and increased efficiency, which improve
quality and lower prices.
Tackling even the hard issues, such as the unequal distribution of
income, the article notes that
the wealthy are partly responsible for making new products affordable over time to the less
wealthy, to average consumers. When a new product is introduced, it's usually too expensive for
all but the wealthy to afford. The rich may buy the product in small amounts but at high prices,
which allows the company to expand its production and offer subsequent lines at lower cost. The
essay notes: "Without society's wealthy, fewer new goods and services would find their way to
the rest of us. Indeed, the wealthy's free spending spurs a democracy of consumption because it
starts the process of lowering prices. . . . The system harnesses the spending of a relatively few
and puts it to work delivering goods to the masses."
The authors use telephone service as an example of how the rich make
things affordable for the
less rich. When long distance service was first available from New York to San Francisco in
1915, a three-minute call cost $20.70 or more than 90 hours of work. Obviously, the average
worker couldn't fford this, but some of the wealthy could. Thus, the article notes, "In footing the
initially high bill, the rich paid the fixed cost of bringing long-distance service to the masses in
America." Now, the same type of long-distance call costs less than 50 cents, or only two minutes
The lessons to be learned from this exercise, in the authors' words,
are the many benefits of a
free enterprise system for consumers:
"Time is the real currency of life, and the value of our time--what
we can acquire for its
exchange--is our most important asset. Like a good steward, America's free enterprise system
has consistently raised the value of our hours and minutes, making most goods and services
affordable for the average worker. The result is a democracy of consumption."
At a time when, in government as well as in private firms, there
are few defenders of free
enterprise and capitalism, especially in relation to consumer welfare, it's refreshing to come
across an essay that rightly celebrates instead of castigates the consumer benefits of a market
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Pre- 1997 Columns
One Flu Over the Chicken's Nest; The
Media's Bird-Brained Reaction to the
Time to Overthrow the Radonistas
The New England Journal of Medicine Pooh-Poohs
Its Own Obesity Findings --January 14, 1998
The Deadly Silence Over Breast Cancer
and Obesity-- March 17, 1998
EPA Must Decide Whether Food Quality Act
Protects Kids or Bugs-- April 28, 1998
Environmentalist Mythology that Harms
Kids June 18, 1998
Nation, Overweight. When Will We Take Action?--
June 23, 1998
Will the Real AIDS Epidemic Please
Stand Up? August 7, 1998
Doomsayer Paul Ehrlich Strikes (Out)
Again--December 22, 1997
The Wages of Food Irradiation Delay Decades of
Death--December 14, 1997
The Hetero AIDS Beast That Would Not
Die--September 26, 1997
Gulf Syndrome Kills
The Government's SIDS Fibs--August
Another Gulf War Syndrome Fad/Theory Fails the
Test--March 19, 1997
Beware the "Fatlash" Books--February
Federico Pena: The Teflon Cabinet
Official--February 9, 1997
False Satisfactions in the Food Lion
Case--January 28, 1997
Crime Rate Drop Calls for Introspection-and
Caution--January 22, 1997
The Abortion-Cancer Study to End All
Studies? Hardly.--January 17, 1997
Cops Pay the Price for New Gun Law--January 9,
USA Today Collects Kudos for
Debunking Its Own Myth--January 2,
Abortion-Breast Cancer Study
Threatens Media Sacred Cow--October
ADM's Ethanol Gets by with Help from Its Friends
AIDS Epidemic Is the Other Bell Curve
Animal Rights Mean Human Wrongs
Anti-Fake Fat Campaign Uses Fake
Anti-Obesity Drug Is Heavy on Hype
Big Sugar vs. the Alligators and Egrets
Bill Clinton Again Betrays the Vets
Bill Clinton's Domestic Abuse Cruise
Battered Justice Syndrome
Breast Cancer Goose Chase Harms
Cancer Charge against Milk Udderly Ridiculous
The Cancer Institute's Ridiculous Radon
Catch Drunks, Don't Harass Drivers
Church-Burning Hoax Pays Huge
Clintons Crimefighting Claims are
Criminal-September 25, 1996
Consumer's Reports' False "Truth about
Crime Study Doesn't Show Racism
Deceptive AIDS Funding Bill Flunks
Delaney Clause Is Nostalgia We Can't Afford
"Demon Rum" Gets a Blessing From
Denver Airport a Tribute to Federico "Kingfish"
Direct Lending Clunker Is Already
Running Out of Gas
Disability Act Cripples Small Businesses
Dr. Death Takes Us Down Slippery
Dole Right (Mostly) on Cigarette Addiction-June 27
Ebola Virus: Horror or Hype?
Endangered Species Act Deserves Extinction
The Envycrats' War Against Newt
Environmentalists' Dirty Attack on Clean Water Act
EPA (Again) Turns a Blind Eye to the
Radon Data - July 25 1996
EPA vs. Clean Air
EPA Hides behind Myths of Love Canal
EPA's Own Panel Says It Masquerades Dioxin
Policy as Science
Farm Subsidies Subsidize Wetlands
Fatheads at FDA Opposing Best Interests of Fat
FDA Screwing Around With Device
The Formula for Dumber Kids
Global Warming Hotheads Use
Anything to Justify Their Theory
GM's Electric Turkey
The Government's Legal Theft Racket
The Great Black Church-burning Hoax-July 9, 1996
A letter to the editor of The Village
Voice about the burnings.
Greens Still Trying to Salvage Their Alar-Stained
Reputation-December 18, 1996
Gulf War Syndrome: Son of Agent
Gun Control Advocates Shoot Blanks at Study
HBO'S Anti-Whitewashed Fairy Tales
How the Media and Lawyers Stir Up False Illness
How the Media Reward Themselves for
Ignored Study Finds Pollution Program Costly and
Ignored Report Says EPA Wrong on
In the Face of Dictatorship, a Hundred Markets
Bloom in Beijing
Iraqgate: Once Bush's Ghost, Now the
The Labor Department's Biased Report
on Reverse Bias
Latest Scare is a Tempest in a Teapot
The Long Suppressed Truth about AIDS
The Media's Militia Hate Fest - August 8 1996
Medical Savings Accounts Miss Real
New Pollution Study Doesn't Merit Rush to
New Syndrome? Or More Silliness?-15
New York Times Blows Hot Air over Global
Nightline Shoots Fear Scud at Gulf Vets
NutraSweet Fuss Amounts to Sweet
Nothings--November 27, 1996
Old Law Continues to Be a Highway
OWL's Not So Wise Report on Inequities of Social
Our Stolen Future?Not Even Misplaced.
Partial-Birth Abortions Are a Complete Horror
Paper Scares Parents for Politics and
Profit-July 18 1996
Pena Leaves Town with Head High--and Bloody
Hands-November 13, 1996
Peter Jennings' Drug Problem-October
Population Action Tells a Fish Story about Fish
Procter & Gamble's Non-fat Fat:
Neither Satan Nor (Sigh) Savior
Profiting from Blasting Drug Company Profits
Rachel's Folly: The End of Chlorine
(with Michelle Malkin)
Racial Politics Make Strange Enemies
Radon's Real Threat is to the EPA
Rights Commission Blows Smoke Over Church
Arsons--October 14, 1996
Sacramento Study Pollutes Truth over
Scare Tactics Pose Real Danger to Children's
"Seven Angels" Should Remind Us of
Silicone Implant Controversy Puts Lawyers on Trial
Speed Limit Rhetoric Plays Fast and
Loose with Facts
The Strangling Vines of Regulation
Time to Make Americorps a Corpse
Time to Retire the Surgeon General's Uniform
Will the U.S. Repeat Peru's Deadly
What the Dutch Can Teach Us about Euthanasia
Who's Stirring up Breast Cancer Fear?
(W.R.) Grace Under Fire--For All the Wrong
A graduate of the University of Illinois College of Law, Michael Fumento is a former AIDS
analyst and attorney for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He has been a legal writer for
the Washington Times, editorial writer for the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, and was the
first "National Issues" reporter for Investor's Business Daily. Mr. Fumento was the 1994
Warren T. Brookes Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the Competitive Enterprise
Institute in Washington, D.C., the 1995-96 Science and Journalism Fellow at Consumer Alert
in Washington, D.C. and the science correspondent for Reason Magazine. Mr. Fumento is a
former Resident Fellow at The American Enterprise Institute.
Mr. Fumento has lectured on science and health issues throughout
the country and in Europe,
Hong Kong, and China. He has authored two books, The Myth of Heterosexual AIDS (1990,
revised 1993) and Science Under Siege: Balancing Technology and the Environment
(1993). Science Under Siege has received two awards, including the American Council on
Science and Health's "Distinguished Science Journalist of 1993" award.
Mr. Fumento can be reached via email at email@example.com
For more by Mr. Fumento contact
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Mr. Fumento's articles are maintained on the World Wide Web
by Consumer Alert to keep its
members and the public informed. Views expressed here are not necessarily the views of
Consumer Alert. This index originally compiled by Atlas Economic Research Foundation.
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