The People’s Regulator

April 16th, 2010 by Phil Mattera

Government regulation of business is looking pretty lame these days. After 29 workers were killed in an explosion at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia, it came to light that the facility had accumulated more than 1,300 safety violations over the past five years but was not shut down by the Mine Safety and Health Administration – an agency labeled a “meek watchdog” in a recent New York Times headline.

It has also been revealed that Toyota managed to keep critical information about faulty gas pedals from federal regulators in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to avoid a massive recall of its vehicles. A pair of recent reports show that regulatory oversight of Citigroup was deficient both before and after the banking giant had to be bailed out by taxpayers. Again and again, it’s the same old story: aggressive corporations riding roughshod over feckless regulators.

Compare this to what recently happened when Consumer Reports issued a “don’t buy recommendation” for a Lexus sport-utility vehicle because its testing had shown a risk of rollovers. Within hours after the warning was issued, Toyota, the parent company of Lexus, announced that it would suspend sales of the GX 460. A company official stated: “We are taking the situation with the GX 460 very seriously and are determined to identify and correct the issue Consumer Reports identified.”

Toyota’s quick response was undoubtedly part of its effort to control the damage to its reputation from the sudden-acceleration controversy, but it also demonstrates the power of Consumer Reports. More than a magazine, it is a bulwark against shoddy manufacturing and dishonest practices that threaten the physical and financial well-being of the public. It is the people’s regulator.

The potency of Consumer Reports stems from its rock-solid integrity and its complete independence from the companies it is monitoring. While the magazine is often taken for granted these days, CR and its non-profit parent Consumers Union have not always been revered during their 70-plus years of existence.

The challenges Consumers Union (CU) faced in its early decades are documented in the work of Norman Silber, who wrote a dissertation on the subject in 1978 (available via the Dissertations & Theses database) which became the 1983 book Test and Protest.

CU was established in 1936 by a group of engineers, researchers, writers and editors who were unabashedly leftwing and saw their work as complementary to the growing labor movement. The organization’s mission was, Silber notes, threatening not only to manufacturers but also to the commercial media, which saw its independent product ratings as “an unfair and subversive attack upon legitimate advertising.” Many major magazines and newspapers refused to let CU advertise Consumer Reports in their pages.

CU was also an early target of the House Un-American Activities Committee, though the scrupulously non-partisan content of Consumer Reports saved the organization from serious persecution. During the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, Silber recounts, CU suspended its reporting on labor conditions in the industries whose products it rated. Its own staff remained unionized, though it switched from the leftist Book and Magazine Guild to the more mainstream Newspaper Guild.

CU did nothing to dilute its assessment of business practices. During the late 1950s it was especially critical of the tobacco industry for engaging in misleading advertising and for selling a dangerous product. CU also took on the dairy industry over the issue of milk contamination caused by radioactive fallout. And it began arguing for improved auto safety starting well before Ralph Nader appeared on the scene. In the 1970s CU successfully pressured federal regulators to improve standards for microwave ovens to address radiation leakage.

CU also did not flinch when the recipients of poor product ratings decided to take the organization to court. It fought companies such as Bose audio and Suzuki Motor up to the Supreme Court to protect its right to offer candid assessments.

This is not to say that CU is completely above reproach. Critics have charged over the years that the organization’s preoccupation with product testing comes at the expense of broader consumer advocacy (this is what Nader said when he quit CU’s board in 1975). And in 2007 the organization suffered a black eye when it botched its testing of infant car seats and had to issue an unprecedented apology. Nonetheless, its overall track record, up through its reprimand of Lexus, is pretty impressive.

A private organization without formal enforcement powers is no substitute for government regulatory agencies, but CU does have something to teach those agencies – above all, that a watchdog can be truly effective only when it is completely uninfluenced by the companies it is monitoring.

It also helps to be able to issue definitive pronouncements about corporate misbehavior. CU’s statement about the dangers of the GX 460 was not tentative and was not subject to time-consuming appeals.

Once official regulators show as much spunk as the likes of Consumers Union, corporations may finally start to clean up their act.

One Response to “The People’s Regulator”

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