The Third Man, Chinese Edition

thirdman.jpgI just saw the noir classic The Third Man a few days ago. In case you want to see it, and hate spoilers, don’t read any more. But on the other hand, you may only want to see it if you read more . . . ah, the paradox of disclosure.

In the film, Harry Lime is an unscrupulous medicine-dealer who sells diluted products in order to make a fast profit. Many children are sickened as a result. In one climactic scene, an old friend of his asks him how he could do it. As he surveys a group of children from the top of a Ferris Wheel, Lime casually says something to the effect of “what if some of those dots down there just stop moving? Who cares?” Disgusted, his now-ex-friend goes to the police.

The story reminded me of the Chinese regulator recently executed for permitting similar crimes to occur. He began as a reformer, but “he and his family accepted gifts valued at more than $850,000 — in a country where the average worker earns less than $2,000 a year.” In little more than 8 years, “his agency approved over 150,000 applications for new drugs, an approval rate that dwarfs the F.D.A., which approves only about 140 new drugs each year.” He ignored many obvious counterfeiting problems.

Zheng’s defenders claim that “the industry was plagued by dishonesty that no regulator could have controlled.” I sympathize with them to the extent that I disapprove of the death penalty in all cases. But it is at least a little reassuring that the rights of statistical people (in Lisa Heinzerling’s memorable phrase) are getting some recognition. Even the most accomplished regulatory scheme can’t save everyone. . . but when people are dismissed as “dots” through either recklessness or cupidity, real penalties make sense.

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