The Thinker

Chinese drywall: a case in point for why we need government

Does anyone like paying taxes? I doubt it. I don’t. Who would not want to give less of their hard earned money to the government? While like most Americans I don’t like paying taxes, I also understand that civilization (like freedom) is not free. So while I don’t like paying taxes, and know a lot of our tax money is wasted (something that should be addressed, of course), I prefer this to the alternative: anarchy.

During the recent snowstorms here in the Northeast, at one point I ended up with twenty-nine inches of snow on the roof of my deck. From my bedroom, I heard my deck’s support timbers creaking from time to time. I watched its roof warily and wondered if it was going to collapse under the weight of all that white stuff. Trying to shovel if off was not really an alternative, as there was no way to get a ladder into my backyard to even attempt it.

After I thought about it for a while, I recalled back to 1999 when we had the deck rebuilt and covered for the first time. I remembered how cranky the builders were when the county building inspector came over to check their work. Some of his requests seemed silly, like adding outdoor spotlights so people could come up the stairs safely in the dark. Others, it turned out, were spot on. One roof support beam every eighteen inches or so was not up to code, he told them. Double them. They grudgingly agreed, not like they had a choice. Likely because my county has competent building inspectors and modern building codes, the roof on my deck weathered a record snowfall.

I was thinking about this roof the other day when I read this article. The Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) ruled that thousands of homes constructed with defective Chinese drywall must have the defective drywall gutted and replaced. In additional, the entire house’s electrical wires, fire alarms, gas pipes and even the circuit breakers must be replaced as well. The defective drywall has been linked to the corrosion of electrical wires and metal pipes, which mean that affected homeowners now also have to worry their house could catch on fire. Then there are the possible health effects including high levels of formaldehyde and sulfur dioxide that may be responsible for numerous reported cases of nose, throat and lung irritation registered by people living in these houses. Most of these houses are relatively new and include many houses that were reconstructed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Imagine you are a homeowner with this problem. Think of the cost of gutting the entire inside of your house and rebuilding it. Think your insurance is going to cover it? My guess is, probably not. You might have some sort of home warranty that came with the house, and you might be able to use it to file a claim. Most likely, you will try to sue to recover the damages, probably by joining a class-action lawsuit. Meanwhile, you will probably cross your fingers that your house will not burn down or that you are not sent to the emergency room suffering from lung inflammation. Now that the government in finally on the case, CSPC chairman Inez Tenenbaum will be flying to China to seek redress from its government. Let’s hope the Chinese do the honorable thing.

We software engineers know that it can cost up to one hundred times as much to fix a problem after a system is delivered as it would be to get the requirement correct the first time. What software engineers know is true of most project-oriented endeavors, like building bridges or constructing houses. Clearly, had this Chinese drywall been known to have been defective it would never have been installed in U.S. homes. Maybe homeowners might have paid a little more for safe American-made drywall, but any homeowner now affected by bad drywall would certainly agree that they would rather have rather paid a little more than to have deal with the huge hassle, expense and health hazard before them.

The CPSC, like many ordinary federal agencies over the last few decades, has had reduced funding. Even the Obama Administration has given the CPSC short shrift, asking for $107 million for the agency in FY10. Congress to its credit realized this was niggardly, and partially because of another scandal (lead in toys produced in China), the CPSC’s budget for FY10 was increased to $136 million. It’s a hopeful trend, but as Consumer Reports has pointed out, the CPSC has been woefully under-funded for years. It appeared that the Bush Administration was trying to strangle it. Not surprisingly, with only 401 full time employees proposed for the agency in FY08, setting up and enforcing standards for safe drywall was on no one’s agenda.

Is government wasteful? Certainly, and there are many places where you can document huge waste and fraud, such as in fraudulent Medicare billing by many health care providers. Does that mean that government cannot provide useful and cost effective services? Absolutely not. I have no idea how much it might cost for the CPSC to create and enforce drywall standards. Let’s say it’s a million dollars a year. Even if it were ten times that much, our slightly higher taxes would more than pay for themselves in the assurance that our home are safer. The state cannot take on this responsibility. Inspecting cargo for compliance with our laws is a federal responsibility.

Perhaps in the Republican mindset, each homeowner would have their drywall independently tested by a private laboratory before having it installed or simply take their chances that they did not install defective drywall. In the real world, this is silly. This is why we have governments, because it makes no sense for every homeowner to do something like this when it can be done once by a government agency at the cost of chipping in a couple extra pennies a year in taxes. Moreover, that’s all it is. Even with a $136 million dollar budget, split among three hundred million Americans, we buy the safety we get from the CPSC for about forty-five cents per person per year. I know I would have no problem paying five dollars a year, or more, to have a lot more assurance that the products I purchase are safe. Nor would most Americans, if the argument were framed this way.

You get the government you are willing to pay for. If you are so insistent in restraining the size and cost of government, even if it means you or I may die because the government is not inspecting foreign drywall, then frankly, I think you are letting ideology override common sense. Perhaps it is time to move to Angola, where you are unencumbered by taxes. As for me, this is why I pay taxes. I am happy to pay whatever taxes are needed to ensure our products are safe. It’s crazy that so many Americans are even disputing this!


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