All Commentary
Sunday, December 1, 2002


For as long as there have been governments, it has been a truism that whatever private individuals or companies, engaging in free exchange of goods and services, see as opportunities, government sees as problems. There is nothing terribly surprising about this, considering that private action is geared to locate ways for betterment, whereas government action is geared to perpetuate itself and its necessity. From time to time an example appears that bears this out perfectly.

The case in point could be called, What shall we do with our old computers? After all, neither individuals nor organizations find it beneficial to waste space holding on to computers, monitors, laptops, or printers that no longer meet their needs. Certainly, they don’t want to keep them if they are broken or so far behind in technology that they are truly useless. Not surprisingly, several companies have gone into business for the purpose of taking computers off people’s hands (for a fee) and then determining the best use for them. (Note that this involves money for a service, not for a product. The computer goes to the recycling company, but so does the money.) If the computer can be refurbished and resold, the owner gets a rebate, the amount of which depends on whatever new value the item acquires as a result of the resale. Sometimes new hardware and/or new software make the computer immediately usable; other times parts must be salvaged from two or more old computers to produce one usable one. Obviously, this has a direct effect on the rebate amounts.

In this way, that wonderful, though much maligned, “trickle-down” effect benefits people who now gain value from a product they could not otherwise afford. Shouldn’t this wise use of products, in the true spirit of “recycling,” be welcomed by all? Hardly.

Enter government. Already about half the states have appropriated funds, mostly for “study committees” (what else?) to determine what to do about the “problem” of used computers. Their rationale is that these terrible devices contain “hazardous materials,” which have been itemized as lead, mercury, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. Note that there is no reference to the amounts of these supposedly hazardous components, nor is there even a shred of concern about what other objects contain some or all of these fearsome ingredients, for example, kitchen appliances, laundry equipment, and industrial machinery. No, that would require thinking, and government-think rarely entails genuine thinking. Most attractive is the aura of mystery surrounding computers, enhanced by the (totally unproven) claims of human harm from their use. Thus legislatures consider themselves justified in seeing this as a problem and attempting to solve that alleged problem by appointing study committees, which invariably will confirm that there is indeed a problem and that even more of the public’s money must be spent to solve it.

Never fear that the federal government will fail to perceive that this problem is also in its domain. Already, a congressman (Rep. Mike Thompson of California) has introduced legislation neatly putting the cart before the horse and imposing a solution to the ostensible problem. This legislation would impose a ten-dollar fee (up front at the time of purchase, of course) on every computer and monitor sold “to help pay for recycling centers.” Pure government-think if there ever was. Obviously, these public “recycling centers” would do what all recycling centers do: produce neatly organized junk so the public needn’t be afraid of old computers.

Nowhere is there any reference to some sort of government bookkeeping procedure to determine how much “help” these many ten-dollar fees would produce. Never in history has there been any such action by government entities. The “fees” referred to would simply get lost in general revenue, and Congress would authorize (or some agency would take it upon itself to spend) whatever it considers appropriate for these recycling centers, inevitably with the expenditure of ever-higher sums.

Helping the Less Fortunate

Government-think, however, can take even more egregious forms. The president of one of the high-tech recycling firms has confirmed that many of the refurbished computers “are often put to productive use in other countries.” He further states, “If they [those in other countries] weren’t able to have access to that much less expensive technology, they wouldn’t have any.” Now, shouldn’t the good congressman cheer this fine procedure for benefiting the less fortunate abroad? Certainly not. Instead he has opined that in doing so, “the U.S. is exporting its environmental problems.”

Hard to believe? Not in the land of government-think.

Barbara Hunter is an advanced level computer support specialist at a large law firm.