If the policies of James C. Miller III, the new chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, were cars, can openers or mousetraps, they would be subject to immediate recall notices. The defects and shoddiness in Miller's thinking were put on the marketplace of ideas the other day in a press conference.
"Consumers are not as gullible as many people, as many regulators tend to think they are," said Miller. "They make intelligent choices. The thing that concerns me is that if we are so tight in our regulation that we can only produce the top-of-the-line kind of product because maybe people in Washington, D.C., with high incomes only used top-of-the-line products, then people who would like to purchase a much lower priced and perhaps not as high a quality product would be deprived of that opportunity. And I want to make sure that doesn't happen."
Miller doesn't specify which regulators have been thinking that citizens are dupes. (We'll be gullible and take his word for it). But in presenting himself as an anti-elitist lined up with Average Joe, Miller shows that he is far out of touch with current consumer sentiment. In a recent story titled, "Why Consumers Gripe Louder Than Ever," U.S. News and World Report magazine told of "a sharp rise in the number of complaints" to groups like the Better Business Bureaus.
In the first six months of 1981, the bureaus received 84,000 complaints, on everything from mail-order swindles to home-maintenance gyps.
The issue isn't consumer gullibility, but consumer good faith. People who bought 1977 through 1981 diesel engine Volkswagens and Audis, for example, surely questioned dealers in the showroom about the new car they were about to buy. But how many thought it necessary to ask about the reliability of the oil filters? Last September, Volkswagen of America, through a consent decree with the FTC, agreed to reimburse owners for engine damage caused by oil filter leaks.
The commission said that its complaint "alleged that VW failed to tell owners of diesel VWs and Audis of the likelihood of oil filter leaks and that the leaks would be less likely if the owners used revised installation instructions. Although such instructions were issued to dealers, none were given owners . . ."
So much for Miller's "intelligent choices" theory. But the new chairman, defender of the consumer's right to buy the cheap and trashy, has an answer for that. Consumers "make very important choices on the basis of information that comes to them by word of mouth appraising the product in the store and that sort of thing."
If Miller is interested in word-of-mouth appraisals of the American marketplace, he ought to go through the files of his own agency. They brim with appeals for help from suffering people whose lives have been damaged by predator sellers.
But Miller appears to have little interest in what went before him at FTC. He was asked about the agency's May report on cigarette smoking. It was a major public document in which the FTC said that warnings about cigarettes are so weak that "many smokers remain unaware of the very basic fact that smoking is hazardous to health." Miller said: "I have not read the report. I wouldn't want to speak too much about smoking. I tend to be fairly libertarian about such matters. If people wish to smoke, that's their business.
If it's too much to ask Miller to learn about his own agency's views on one of the nation's most menacing products, perhaps a phone call to Sen. Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican, would help. In May, Hatch, supporting the FTC conclusions, said that "ignorance of the effects of smoking is one of the greatest contributions to death and chronic disease in the United States."
Miller typifies the kind of official that Ronald Reagan has been appointing to regulatory agencies. They are administratively inexperienced and politically insensitive. Carelessly, they have twisted classic conservative suspiciousness of government's power into unquestioning faith in unregulated industries.
Because of Miller, libertarian with other people's safety and a believer in word-of-mouth consumer protection and "that sort of thing," the buyer must now beware of the FTC.