21 July 2010

Logic vs. The Bureaucratic Mind: Guess which wins?

The Ontario Government is a marvel of bureaucratic thinking (but don't worry Toronto City Hall, and the Harper Conservative Regime - you're both doing really well in bureaucratic race to the bottom). The recent eco-fee-asco is not only politically damaging, revealing as it does the malaise that seems to pervade Queen's Park. It is actually far worse in its implications of a government so out of touch with sustainability issues, so blinded by a linearizing bureaucratic logic, so ineffective that it cannot perceive the effects of anything that it does, that it is hard to know where to begin, either in one's critique, or an effective remedy.

Here's the back-story: Money is a force-motivator. In other words, one can very crudely change behaviour by adjusting the amount of money one associates with that behaviour. Charge five cents for a shopping bag, and people will reduce their consumption of shopping bags, because it's not too difficult to bring your own. Bureaucratic logic (in this case, a.k.a. by its proper name, reductio ad absurdum) says that by charging some number of cents for containers of toxic products, people will reduce their use of toxic products. We can always bring our emptied plastic water bottles to refill with bleach, laundry detergent, and other household cleansers. And, if we really don't want to cart our own fluorescent tubes and those CFP "bulbs" the government has been foisting on us to the solid waste transfer stations so that we can sit in the queue among the garbage trucks, we could always reuse them as lawn ornaments. Or something...

In practice, eco-fees are a good idea IF AND ONLY IF they are applied to those who can actually do something about toxic and excessive packaging. Throughout the world - and especially in Europe - manufacturers are responsible for the disposal fees associated with their packaging - the packaging over which they have exclusive control. The result is a significant reduction in excess packaging because the fees placed on the manufacturers are indeed a force-motivator. Consumers have been known to unpack gadgets, small appliances, and anything else that is feasible in the stores, resulting in stores and manufacturers having a positive incentive to reduce trash.

Not so here, among the self-interested, so-called stakeholders (and I do absolutely hate that term). In this case, the self-interested holders of stake who form the euphemistically named Stewardship Ontario are the very manufacturers and retailers who would be stuck with the bill, if they didn't have the power to simply say, "consumer pays." Among the bureaucrats, there is no thought given to the logic which responds, "but consumers can't do much to change the packaging"; manufacturers and retailers can, so they should be the ones on the hook. Simple, logical, effective, and not so bureaucratically absurdum.

One additional point: the bureaucratic approach to fast-and-loose accounting, that allows the government to say, "it's not a tax" with a straight face, because Stewardship Ontario is technically not the government and, you know, only governments can collect taxes, doesn't fool anyone who doesn't want to be fooled. What is completely amazing to me is that Minister Gerretsen seems genuinely surprised at how poorly this all turned out. Then again, he is only advised by bureaucrats - unable to either perceive quality or innovate.
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