Kevin Drum discusses legislation to outlaw phosphates in detergent (to protect waterways). A fun extra of the piece is a link to a blogger at Redstate salivating at the coming Great Times of vigilantes beating legislators to death, and armed rebellion, over this. But the line that rang a bell in my head was this, about a cleaning products industry that could have made phosphate-free detergents (and, it turns out, is about to go phosphate free): “The industry just didn’t feel like doing it.”

Such a thing is, of course, impossible in theory, because the iron discipline of the market will bankrupt any business that operates on whim rather than consumer value maximization. No employer can discriminate on race or sex in hiring because his competitors, using more talent at a lower price, will put him out of business. And we also know that business leaders learn ethics and the highest principles in their MBA courses, so they cannot imaginably combine in trust or cartel to obstruct this discipline, and deny society value for their own gain.

And yet, the world keeps insulting those of us who want to believe what we’re told with stories like Kevin’s. Back in the twenties, the railroads sabotaged passenger service, because they were run by freight people who “just didn’t feel like” carrying goods that expected to arrive on time, had to be kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer, wanted to eat en route, and could complain when mistreated. Around the same time, GM, DuPont, and Standard Oil arranged to sell cars that needed a little lead to cool the valves, and gasoline with a little lead in it, because tetraethyl lead was patentable and ethanol, a perfectly good alternate octane increaser, was not. The price of this, of course, was three quarters of a century of IQ hits to everyone – everyone – and terrible toxic effects for workers. In the seventies, the car execs swore up and down that a clean drivable car was a squared circle, technically impossible (not just hard) and that asking for one would sink the republic: they “just didn’t feel like” having to make such a thing. And the same characters spent the last twenty years not learning to make good small cars which would have saved them now, because “they just didn’t feel like” it. The airlines absolutely refuse to sell a seat with space and price in between steerage/DVT/crippling/sardine class for very cheap, and ridiculously luxurious business class for ten times more. I guess they “just don’t feel like” it.

I was not surprised to learn that Rick Wagoner had spent his entire life in the especially hermetic and self-laudatory culture of General Motors, with a whole executive cohort raised in the same space capsule. I bet guys in Cincinnati who ask troublesome questions about why P&G isn’t selling phosphate-free products miss out on a lot of fun golf afternoons and dinners with the boss. And my own colleagues will do almost anything to not observe each others’ teaching, even though collective attention to process is the core of quality assurance in every industry. There must be some reason for this last one beyond “we just don’t like to do it”, but I’ve been clearly admonished not to try very hard to find out what it is.

I’m beginning to experiment with dark mystic arts, especially including uttering some fell and terrifying incantations (hide your eyes if you’re not at my stage of recklessness):

Culture matters.

Diversity matters.

Firms and industries are cultures.

Every culture is not just as good as every other culture.

If I don’t return alive from the cave where this stuff is kept, I expect Mark will post a notice here.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.