Stopbullying.gov defines bullying as aggressive behavior that includes "An Imbalance of Power: physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others." and "Repetition: behaviors that have the potential to happen more than once."
I'd add that more often than not, the the point of bullying is not merely for the stronger party to force the weaker party to do his or her physical bidding, but for the stronger party to exact social capitulation. It is about dominance, humilation, and – perhaps most importantly – demonstrating to others exactly who has the power and who does not.
[ the 7 foot square office is ] a long way from the Soho digs the 34-year-old used to occupy. Mr. Zucker is the former CEO of Maxfield & Oberton, the small company behind Buckyballs, an office toy that became an Internet sensation in 2009 and went on to sell millions of units before it was banned by the feds last year…
Nowadays Mr. Zucker spends most of his waking hours fighting off a vindictive U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission that has set out to punish him for having challenged its regulatory overreach. The outcome of the battle has ramifications far beyond a magnetic toy designed for bored office workers. It implicates bedrock American notions of consumer choice, personal responsibility and limited liability…
"In March of 2009, we ordered 100 sets of magnets from China. We literally put our last $1,000 each in the business," Mr. Zucker says…
By 2010, the company had built a distribution network of 1,500 stores, including major retailers like Urban Outfitters and Brookstone… sales reached $10 million a year…
On July 10, 2012, the Consumer Product Safety Commission instructed Maxfield & Oberton to file a "corrective-action plan" within two weeks or face an administrative suit related to Buckyballs' alleged safety defects. Around the same time—and before Maxfield & Oberton had a chance to tell its side of the story—the commission sent letters to some of Maxfield & Oberton's retail partners, including Brookstone, warning of the "severity of the risk of injury and death possibly posed by" Buckyballs and requesting them to "voluntarily stop selling" the product.
It was an underhanded move, as Maxfield & Oberton and its lawyers saw it. "Very, very quickly those 5,000 retailers became zero," says Mr. Zucker…
Now, before you re-route power from your snark engine to reinforce your anti-libertarian shields, let me say that I'm not arguing that the government is lacking the the authority to regulate magnets. (For the record, I strongly believe that (a) the Constitution does not give Congress the legal power to regulate magnets, (b) the Constitution does not give Congress the legal power to delegate any such power to an un-elected, unaccountable bureaucracy, but I'm not arguing that right now.)
Let's accept for the purposes of this blog post that the CPSC has the perfect legal and moral right to regulate magnets. Even if that's the case, I assert attempting to destroy a firm's hard-won retail network before the legal issue is settled is something worse than an unlawful taking. Worse, because robbing Peter to pay Paul at least (a) can theoretically be reversed later if a court holds that it was illegal, and (b) preserves some of the value of the item that is taken and redistributed. Destroying a retailer network is like tearing down a city's walls and salting its fields. After that the resource is of no use to the original owner, it's of no use to anyone else, and it can't be fixed. It's gone.
You might think that my argument is that there is a power imbalance, and hence bullying, when some government bureaucrat with a taxpayer-provided medical plan, a retirement plan guaranteed near-$200k/year salary, bonuses of up to 20% per year, 25 days of vacation per year (in addition to all government holidays), 11 months of sabbatical per decade (with travel, per diem, and salary covered), personal professional liability insurance, and so on destroys the business of a 34 year old entrepreneur and pushes him near bankruptcy.
But, no, that's not what I'm arguing.
I can fight with a handicap, so I'll give the other side this one – I'll stipulate for purposes of this argument that it is entirely reasonable and just and within the intentions of the Founders that various princes and potentates living on the public dime can destroy a self-made man's business by writing a memo.
Sure. Dandy. If ignoring the Constitution and the 9th amendment is what's required to make sure that no 13 year old ever sneaks into a childless yuppie's house and eats a $30 executive toy, then so be it. Let's do it for the children.
No, the point about bullying that I want to call out is this:
As for the corrective-action plan, it was submitted at 4 p.m. on the July 24 deadline. Yet the very next morning the commission filed an administrative lawsuit…
On July 27, just two days after the commission filed suit, the company launched a publicity campaign to rally customers and spotlight the commission's nanny-state excesses…
"It was a very successful campaign," says Mr. Zucker, "just not successful enough to keep us in business." On Dec. 27, 2012, the company filed a certificate of cancellation with the State of Delaware, where Maxfield & Oberton was incorporated, and the company was dissolved.
But in February the Buckyballs saga took a chilling turn: The commission filed a motion requesting that Mr. Zucker be held personally liable for the costs of the recall, which it estimated at $57 million…
Note that the CPSC isn't demanding that the corporation to pay a fine for damages done by magnets (magnets that it unilaterally, without any scientific evidence or court finding, declared to be unacceptably safe), because it did not identify or enumerate damages.
Because the owner had the temerity to back-talk his betters – and worse yet, do it in public – the CPSC is demanding that the former owner of the corporation pay the administrative cost of destroying his company.
Let me repeat something I said at the very start of this post: the the point of bullying is not merely for the stronger party to force the weaker party to do his or her physical bidding, but for the stronger party to exact social capitulation. It is about dominance, humilation, and – perhaps most importantly – demonstrating to others exactly who has the power and who does not.
(Side note: the utterly degrading ritual humilation of making someone pay for the cost of killing something they love is a classic maneuver, and there really should be a term for it.)
In defense of the commisars, though, you can almost hear them say "Don't take it personally, buddy. It's not about you – it's about letting everyone in your tribe understand who's calling the shots."
The incentives that they're laying down are clear: "If you roll over and obey your betters, we'll just destroy your company. …but if you dare to question us, we'll destroy your entire life.
"Yes, in a few years, we commissioners will retire on our our government pensions, and take advantage of the taxpayer funded program for Tier 3 Senior Government Executives that moves all of our furniture, cars, and possessions from our homes in DC to our new retirement houses in Vale.
"But you won't retire. You – as an individual – will be burdened with over $50 million of debt. Even after you sell your house, liquidate your investments, and auction off the coin collection you inherited from your grandfather, will never be out of debt."
P.S. While researching this post, I came across references to an academic paper: "When David Meets Goliath: Dealing With Power Differentials in Negotiation", published in the Spring 2000 issue of the Harvard Negotiation Law Review. I thought it might be interesting to download a copy and see what warnings it had about overbearing government.
It turns out I made a fundamental mistake. It's not a call-to-arms. It's a how-to manual. …written by one of the commissars of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The critical test of one’s effectiveness in a negotiation is what one has convinced an opponent that one can do
To have effective power, one must be willing to use it or be able to convince an opponent that one will use it
If the would-be robber-slight and unarmed-demands the wallet from a large, stout-hearted, and strong victim, the transaction may be marred for the robber by the victim’s refusal to hand over the wallet. If, however, the robber flashes a loaded pistol accompanied by sufficient threats to convince the victim of his willingness to use the weapon, he or she is much less likely to encounter resistance.
That's power. Can you smell it, serf?
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