Sunday, May 13, 2007

The Bottom Line

Part 4: Code Talkers

Part 5: The Bottom Line

Consistency is not one of mankind's defining attributes, unless we're talking about the pursuit of our basest desires.

American conservatism acknowledges that reality in its own split-brained way. To the social conservative, that way lies sin - those base desires must be tamed. To the economic conservative, that way lies progress, freedom. "By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of society," as Adam Smith wrote. Through pursuit of self-interest a man shapes his world as he sees fit and best enjoys his God-given freedom. Greed is good.

Government (other people) just get in the way. "[G]overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," President Reagan declared, as though somehow distinct from the beast of which he'd just become the head. The Oval Office's current occupant, his team of sycophants and a Republican-controlled congress (even the Clinton administration) made a demonstration project of Reagan's declaration, hoping finally to free us from the regulatory chains that bind us from pursuing personal gain without regard for anyone else.

Hence Iraq, Katrina, Abramoff, Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, Global Crossing, etc.

Economic conservatism is about the bottom line: my bottom line. Maybe that's why conservatives have such an affinity for corporations.

Their "leave us alone" tendencies find expression in assertions that, say, the Virginia Tech shootings might not have happened if more people carried guns. Like free people in Mogadishu, Sarajevo and Baghdad.

Unfettered capitalism (or something close to it) is the "leave us alone" crowd's goal as well. Given how successful their theories about guns have proved when tested in the cities just mentioned, what does unfettered capitalism look like?

Last Sunday's New York Times gives us an inkling.

In China's wild-west style economy, the lack of oversight means those seeking to enhance their bottom line unencumbered by onerous government regulation are free to pursue their Chinese Dream.
In this environment, Wang Guiping, a tailor with a ninth-grade education and access to a chemistry book, found it easy to enter the pharmaceutical supply business as a middleman. He quickly discovered what others had before him: that counterfeiting was a simple way to increase profits.

[. . .]

“He didn’t know what he was doing,” Mr. Wang’s older brother, Wang Guoping, said in an interview. “He didn’t understand chemicals.”

But he did understand how to cheat the system.

Wang Guiping, 41, realized he could earn extra money by substituting cheaper, industrial-grade syrup — not approved for human consumption — for pharmaceutical grade syrup. To trick pharmaceutical buyers, he forged his licenses and laboratory analysis reports, records show.

Mr. Wang later told investigators that he figured no harm would come from the substitution, because he initially tested a small quantity. He did it with the expertise of a former tailor.

He swallowed some of it. When nothing happened, he shipped it.
"It" was a cheap substitute for pharmaceutical-grade glycerin. Later he found an even cheaper substitute: diethylene glycol, a primary ingredient in antifreeze. It ended up in cough syrup in Panama where reportedly well over 300 died. (They haven't been able to get an accurate count of the number who died.)

"Seventy years ago, medicine laced with diethylene glycol killed more than 100 people in the United States, leading to the passage of the toughest drug regulations of that era and the creation of the modern Food and Drug Administration," the Times reported.

It's a "bottom line mentality," says Prof. Donald McCabe of Rutgers University. Only McCabe was speaking to NPR about the recent expulsion of graduate students at Duke's business school for cheating. Among undergraduates McCabe's recent survey finds that "business students and occasionally engineering students" rise to the top in terms of self-reported cheating, with MBA students rising to the top among graduate students.

Their attitude, says McCabe, is "I'm just learning a skill that's going to serve me well when I'm out there in the profession. It's less important how you get the job done as long as you do get it done. So, that bottom line mentality."

We saw the bottom line mentality at work recently in the poisoned pet food containing rice protein concentrate (and other bulk food products) from China contaminated with melamine, an ingredient in some plastics. Apparently, Chinese exporters used melamine to boost the apparent protein content and their bottom lines.

Are we now exporting bottom-line thinking?

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