Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Retreat from quality

Express Staff Writer

In simpler times when product technology was virtually unheard of, and consumer goods were basic, the words "product recall" would've been as foreign to the language as "suborbital booster rocket separation."

Today, however, so many foods and manufactured products are being recalled because they're unsafe that Washington maintains a constantly updated website——to keep consumers informed of recalls in foods, automotive, boats, medicine, cosmetics and environmental products and hundreds of byproducts.

How vast are recalls? In 2009, the Consumer Product Safety Commission ordered 465 product recalls involving tens of millions of items, covering an unimaginable world of goods, from automobiles to baby cribs and toys to foods and pesticides and machines and accessories. Some recalls were of products that 99 percent of the population had never heard of.

Granted, the more complicated and exotic industry's products become, the more imperfections and design errors occur. However, what's happened to industry's onetime obsession with quality control? It vanished when corporate decisions were made to cut corners on quality and reduce investments in research and development to shave costs and increase profits. Thus, more flaws showed up after products rolled off assembly lines and reached consumers, not while being made.

Profits of U.S. businesses were paramount when they relied more heavily on imports of Chinese food and toys—virtually all produced with no modern quality controls. The result: illnesses among Americans.

Products, moreover, are not all that're showing lowered standards. Standards throughout U.S. society are slowly sinking. If corporate costs and profits influenced manufacturing quality, then the conduct of public affairs and public services are suffering even more acutely.

In Washington, Republicans boast of being (in Rep. John Boehner's words) the party of "Hell no!" and spite.

Congressional and state Legislature candidates across the land run on platforms that appeal to ignorance, fear, guns, dismantling government and fables.

Large newspapers, once proud of excellence, have bowed to Wall Street shareholders and stripped their journalistic muscle—laying off or buying out experienced and indispensably knowledgeable professionals, closing world news bureaus and skimping on editing resources.

Television has cheapened public discourse with less costly TV talk shows programmed to incite ugly exchanges between disagreeable partisans and to appeal to an audience mentality akin to hootin' and howlin' wrestling match mobs on their third beer. Washington Post TV columnist Tom Shales describes cable TV's panelists as "a mephitic menagerie of hotheads, saber rattlers, cretins and crackpots."

In one area, however, Americans still excel in quality by a wide margin: weapons of war.

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