TALES OF OUR TIMES: Consensus Looked To The Data

By JOHN BARTLIT
New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Consensus Looked To The Data

Tension always exists between team loyalty and advancing your team’s interests with sound evidence.

In about 1975, I was appointed to a national panel of the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) in Washington, D.C. This rare experience revealed the many worthy souls at work on all sides, and it shapes my point of view still today.

Our panel had the formidable task of assessing the impact of regulations on the nation’s economy. The regulations of concern were all those that protect the environment, public safety and health. To help our work, we had each other and the results of detailed studies, some done for our use.

The panel members came from a wide range of viewpoints. I was the citizen environmental advocate. There was one other “public” advocate like myself. The rest of the 12 or 15 on the panel worked for companies the likes of General Motors Corp., 3M Company, big drug companies, drug testing firms and such. Experts in their specialties.

Business people are business people. But business people are also latent citizens. At least many are, if given half a chance. A citizen voice in the room lets their citizen part show up more often than with no citizen voice nearby. It happened again and again on the OTA panel.

After the first meeting, a weight of despair hung over me. My mind told me, “My concerns for clean air and water are going to get squashed flat as a bug. Too many of the others will look to find ways that rules have ruined the economy.”

But that was before I knew of the “citizen effect.” The business folks on the panel were reluctant to offer the citizen viewpoint. Yet they had a great readiness to agree with it when it came from others.

I can only guess why. The reluctance may stem from an impulse to corporate loyalty. The readiness stems from a deep regard for data. 

An example: To help the panel, the OTA hired the Harvard Business School to study the economic impact on the auto industry of the rules that improve safety and clean the air. The draft report of the study said the regulations added $600 to the cost of a new car.

When we met to go over the draft, I was puzzled. I said the cost I’d heard on the news was much less, more like $200 per car. The GM engineer across the table was quick to join in: “That’s right,” he said. “GM’s testimony to Congress put the costs at around $200 to $250.”

Points as small as this one, when bounced back and forth among panel members, do much to turn the tenor of the dialogue.

Digging into data goes deeper. It did on the panel. First here … then there, new ideas came out. With honest pride, the 3M process engineer told how 3M revamped a process to meet a regulation, and lowered the production costs by switching to a safer chemical. Innovation brought unexpected profits and progress.

My surprise grew as more stories came to light.

The surprise springs from the variety and nature of people – how they act and interact, how they affect each other. In small ways that matter, people’s behaviors change with those around them, for better or worse. Even in our small forum. 

To cut to the end, the OTA panel formally found the effect of regulations on the overall economy is too small to say much about. The effect is too small to know whether the effect is a small loss or a slight boost.

The reason things work this way is the $250 spent for new devices on a car are income earned in the new business of supplying the devices. And so on.

Would the verdict have been different with no citizen voices on the panel? I can’t prove it in court, but I firmly believe that it would. I saw business interests in a new light.

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