How to ace the GMAT in 28 days: Day 23 (3rd CAT test: 570)

Ok, I’m in trouble. Possible reasons: a) I’m not approaching the CAT tests properly, b) the questions on the CAT are harder than on my paper practice tests, or c) my brain’s turned to mush. The most likely possibility is c), since my brain split apart on Monday and I spent twelve hours staring at the walls. Today’s essays:

Analysis of an Issue

“The safety of consumer goods can best be ensured not by way of government regulation but rather through voluntary efforts of the private businesses that produce those goods.” To what extent do you agree or disagree with the foregoing statement? Use reasons and/or examples from your experience, observation, and/or reading to explain your viewpoint.

Safety costs money, and businesses exist to make money. However good a ‘corporate citizen’, any enterprise subject to market forces has an obligation to maximise profits. This means that unless safety is a selling point of the product (and therefore worth investing in) it will always be treated as a cost to be minimised. Accordingly, I disagree with this statement.

Indeed, there’s plenty of evidence that no business will increase safety unless compelled by law. Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”, written many decades ago and detailed the appalling conditions in the meatpacking industry, did nothing to shame the meatpackers into improving the safety of the rancid, rotted products they shipped to America’s poor; the changes came when the US government enacted laws protecting food quality. Even today, meatpacking firms are among the biggest contributors to political candidates in meat-producing regions of the USA; they are spending money not on increasing safety voluntarily, but on influencing lawmakers to reduce the legislative burden.

The fact that some health and safety legislation is ludicrous – the European Union’s endless red tape aimed at the motor industry comes to mind – does not affect this basic argument. Selling a car in Europe is hard, yes… but some 80% of the vehicles sold in European showrooms score a ‘5’ in crash tests, the safest grade. Whereas in China, where laws are less developed, virtually no model scores above a ‘1’. Again, it seems clear that companies are motivated by money, not consumer safety.

Nor does the success of companies like Volvo, known for safe products, provide evidence to the contrary. Volvo’s brand (and hence the premium it can charge consumers) is all about safety; the carmaker treats safety as a brand asset worth investing in. Therefore in maximising the safety of its cars, Volvo is not making some ‘voluntary effort’ out of the goodness of its corporate heart: it is simply making a sound business decision.

In addition, some consumer products are to all practical purposes designed to cause harm, such as those of the alcohol and tobacco companies. It’s fair to say Philip Morris and Budweiser don’t have the best interests of their customers’ lungs and livers foremost in their business plans. The law here at least provides a regulatory framework for such harmful products; if no such standards existed, it’s fair to say cigarettes would be a lot more addictive, and there’d be a lot more blindness-inducing moonshine on the shop shelves.

Of course, none of this is to argue in favour of ever-increasing government legislation. The blunt instrument of the law should only be used where all else fails, as in a situation where the participants have no other obligation to act. But businesses – faceless machines for making money, with no sense of citizenship beyond that of their individual employees – are such a case. While no business plan thrives on causing harm to its buyers, harm caused by neglect can be equally damaging… meaning regulation to protect citizens has every place in a market-driven democracy.

FAULTS: Not my best; this was a hard one! Spent nearly 10 mins just getting past the first sentence to get my plan noted down. I wanted to develop the argument more along the lines that corporations aren’t supposed to be human; this essay makes me look anti-corporate, when I’m simply stating a reasonable fact about the realities of business. And ‘fair to say’ twice? I’m only giving myself a 4.

Analysis of an Argument

(NOTE added 21aug2012: GMAT expert Mark Stewart has asserted his right to be identified as the author of the essay prompt in italics below, and has requested this link to his original source material, which I’m happy to provide.)

The following appeared in a recent report by the Fern County planning commission:

“In light of the increasing percentage of our nation’s population turning to the Internet as a source of reference material, Fern County should close the ancillary branch of its public library, and convert that facility into a computer training center for use by county residents. The converted facility would fill what is certain to be a growing need among Fern residents for computer training. At the same time, since the county library’s main branch already contains more volumes per resident than any other county library in the state, it will adequately serve the needs of Fern County residents. Moreover, Fern residents are sure to support this plan; after all, in nearby Mesa County only a few residents have objected to that county’s plan to close all but one of its public libraries in the near future.”

Discuss how logically convincing you find this argument. In your discussion, you should analyze the argument’s line of reasoning and use of evidence. It may be appropriate in your critique to call into question certain assumptions underlying the argument and/or to indicate what evidence might weaken or strengthen the argument. It may also be appropriate to discuss how you would alter the argument to make it more convincing and/or discuss what additional evidence, if any, would aid in evaluating the argument.

My answer:

This argument seems well-meant, but short-sighted. Computer training may well be useful for the denizens of Fern County… but libraries are more than stockhouses for books. The commission relies on evidence that seems little better than guesswork, and uses evidence selectively to support its specific viewpoint. Accordingly, the commission’s case for closure is unsupportable without further evidence.

The commission’s report assumes that Fern County residents are representative of the country as a whole. Is this true? If Fern contains a great many older people with time on their hands, they may strongly oppose the closure of a library, regarding a library as a social focus as well as a place of learning. In addition, the ‘increasing percentage’ quoted for the country as a whole does not include a base figure; even if the percentage turning to the Internet has doubled in the last year, that might mean 2% increasing to 4%. New technologies are often adopted first by specific demographics, such as the young; to strengthen its argument, the commission needs to demonstrate that Fern County represents a slice of society for which closing a library carries more benefits than disadvantages.

Furthermore, by mentioning the county library, the commission displays fuzzy logic – it seeks to close the local library since people are turning to the Internet, yet sees a continued need for the larger establishment. To present its case logically (pro- or con- library) the commission should present a unified view. The uncharitable view of this argument, of course, is that the main motive for closing the library may not be to respect a sea change in citizens’ learning styles, and is more about cost-cutting. If so, the commission should make this clear.

The commission cites another county’s library-closing plans as evidence, but again fails to give any information regarding the demographic makeup of Mesa County. Is Fern County a retirement community and Mesa County full of college students? The ‘few complaints’ from Mesa residents do not necessarily indicate support for the closure; there may be a silent majority of people who simply don’t know about the closure plans.

Nor has the commission made its case that this is an ‘either/or’ situation. Is there a need for both a library and a computer training facility? If computer training would be valuable to the community, it deserves to be considered on its own merits, not solely in conjunction with the loss of a library.

Of course, the need for computer training has not been established in any case. If a ‘growing percentage’ of citizens are turning to the Internet, doesn’t that suggest the nation’s computer skills are already quite strong? The commission does not make a strong business case for setting up a computer training facility, and again this makes the argument too fuzzy to be convincing.

In summary, while there may be a perfectly justifiable case for closing the local library, the commission’s report suggests Fern County should try the new at the expense of the old – when the library closure and the proposed computer training facility should each be considered separately. Libraries are not shops or warehouses; they are an ancient and respected part of a nation’s intellectual and social fabric, dating back to the establishment of democracy itself in the Greek public square, and the case for closing such an important civic institution must be made with greater depth than the argument achieves.

FAULTS: Too wordy, but I think this is ok; although it doesn’t 100% answer the issue of whether Fern commissioners have a reasonable case in wanting to open a training centre. I’ll give myself a 5.

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