PMI's latest meeting featured different approaches to government regulation.

Let's not exaggerate. Let's not pretend that overregulation is the sole cause or even the major reason why so many American manufacturers are scrambling overseas like rabbits escaping a brush fire. No, I'm not suggesting anything like that.

I'm just saying that government regulations in the United States provide ample kindling for those wildfires. Case in point: some legislative initiatives addressed at the Spring Meeting of the Plumbing Manufacturers Institute (PMI), held last April.

A little background is in order. Memories still linger about the environmental crusades of the 1980s that got lead content substantially reduced in solder and plumbing brass, and of the early '90s when toilet manufacturers were ordered to reduce water consumption of their products by more than half. New manufacturing processes had to be invented and soldering is not as easy as it used to be, but today's plumbing products contain miniscule amounts of lead, and the amount that leaches out is downright trivial. And, despite an ill-advised forced march to market that left consumers with millions of icky experiences during the 1990s, modern toilets now work quite well on 1.6 gallons or less per flush.

However, when you're an environmental activist with a sacred duty to protect citizens from greedy business interests conspiring to pollute the world, screws can never be tightened enough. That goes double when you live on the Left Coast.

Thus have arisen two new quixotic pieces of legislation in California. Current federal law limits lead content to 8% for pipes and fittings and 4% in plumbing fittings and fixtures. California Assembly Bill 1953 aims to reduce the percentage in all of these product categories to 0.25%. Activists also are hyperventilating via Assembly Bill 2496, which aims to reduce the 1.6 gallons per flush toilet standard to 1.3 gpf.

PMI members aren't unanimously opposed to these new standards. All are resigned that sooner or later the screws will tighten again. They simply prefer standards that will apply nationwide and with suitable time to bring engineering and manufacturing up to speed, rather than rush to make special products for the California market.

Costs vs. benefits? Economic impact on manufacturers stung half to death by global competition? Left Coast neurons do not crackle and snap in response to such inconsequentials. Let's take a closer peek inside this mindset.

Entrances to many California hotels, offices and other commercial buildings are festooned with infantile plaques that caution visitors the air inside might be dangerous to breathe. Maybe it's because smoking is allowed. Sometimes it's merely because, gasp, strong cleaning solvents are used to polish the floors.

One wonders how many citizens actually read these warnings, and then how many have stopped breathing upon entering the buildings. Ya think maybe some turn around and return later wearing gas masks? Doesn't matter. To Left Coast environmental activists, purity of motive counts for more than attaining results. A statement was made. They care. Anyone who objects is a greed merchant that puts business interests above human health.

Common sense breaks out

The PMI meeting was held at a resort outside of Albuquerque, NM, a less fashionable place than California but where outbreaks of common sense have been known to occur. PMI recruited as a speaker for this conference Katherine Yuhas, who manages a water conservation program for a local water utility.

Their program has an urgency far beyond that embodied in the California Assembly bills. Albuquerque is surrounded by desert. The region averages only eight inches of rainfall a year and is experiencing its worst drought in recorded history spanning 112 years. Ms. Yuhas explained to PMI members a wide-ranging program of water conservation that exceeded the utility's goal of reducing water consumption by 30% in a 10-year span.

Albuquerque water authorities accomplished it with a blend of economic carrots and sticks. Most pronounced is an effort to reduce water consumption by spending about $1.2 million a year in rebates for installation of low-flow toilets, showerheads and other water-conserving devices. Enforcement is vigorous, and violators get punished with fines affixed to their water bills. According to Yuhas, a conservation ethic has taken hold in Albuquerque thanks to these efforts.

Imagine that, government authorities achieve actual results not by clubbing product producers, but by relying on free market incentives to shape human behavior. Programs like this might even work in California, were it not governed by so many adherents to the cult of regulation by fiat and warning signs.

Don't miss Jim's program, “50 Simple Tips To Boost Your Business Writing,” to be presented at this year's ISH North America trade show in Chicago, Sept. 28-30.
“It's guaranteed to freak out some English teachers,” Jim says.