Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Bush administration seeks return to 19th century laissez faire

The Consumer Protection Agency (CPA) responsible for policing 15,000 consumer goods from toys to tools has seen its budget slashed.

Its staff currently numbers 420, about half its size in the 1980s. Only 15 inspectors are assigned to police imported consumer products ranging from flat screens to toys, a marketplace of 15,000 different products valued at $614 billion in 2006.

There is only one full-time employee to test toys despite recalls in the last two months of more than 13 million Chinese made toys with lead levels that sometimes reached 200 times the safety limit.

Lead is harmful to children because it can accumulate in their nervous system, damaging brain development and causing learning difficulties.

The damage is irreversible.

So what is the response of the Bush administration to the proliferation of unsafe products?

Remarkably, it is actively opposing efforts to increase the number of inspectors and strengthen the agency's enforcement tools.

Reaching back to Adam Smith's 1776 laissez faire playbook, it has urged Congress to reject legislation designed to strengthen the agency ability to regulate harmful or dangerous products.

That's right! Despite the fact that 13 million toys like Thomas toy trains and Mattels's Sesame Street and Nickelodeon characters — including the Elmo Tub Sub, the Dora the Explorer Backpack, and the Giggle Gabber - have been found to be dangerous to children, the Bush administration apparently feels that one inspector is enough!

Nancy A. Nord, the acting chairwoman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, has written two letters to lawmakers urging them to reject the bulk of legislation that would increase the agency’s authority, double its budget and sharply increase its dwindling staff.

Ms. Nord has also opposed provisions that would significantly increase the maximum fines from $1.85 million to $100 million, ban lead completely from all children’s products and make it easier for the government to make public reports of faulty products, protect industry whistle-blowers and prosecute executives of companies that willfully violate laws.

Light was shed on Ms. Nord’s opposition to increasing her agency's capacity when it was disclosed that she had traveled on the industry’s dime, accepting “gift travel” from those with business before the commission.

While it is hard to believe the agency’s lax approach was not affected by nearly 30 trips to places like China, Spain and a golf resort on Hilton Head Island, S.C., Ms. Nord’s opposition is entirely consistent with the the Bush administration's ideological opposition to the regulation of industry. From antitrust to trucking to worker safety, officials appointed by President Bush have sought to reduce regulation of the private marketplace promoting industry self-policing as an alternative.

Bush administrative officials argue in the face of more than a century of evidence that capitalism will self regulate- that corporations will not produce unsafe products because rational consumers will not buy them. From Upton Sinclair's expose of the unsanitary conditions in Chicago's packing houses through the century long production of dangerous products like lead paint and cigarettes to the Ford Pinto gas tank explosions to the Chinese toy lead paint scare, the history of industrial capitalism demonstrates just the opposition.

Consumers have no idea what harmful chemicals and other agents are used in the production of products, pharmaceuticals and even food.

Corporations are legally obligated to pursue the highest rate of returns for their stockholders. And corporate executives' compensation is generally based on short term, quarterly results. Consumer, worker or environmental safety are deemphasized or ignored entirely. As a result, in the world's industrial democracies citizens have turned to their elected governments to enact laws that require that products, pharmaceuticals and food meet safety standards and that guarantee consumers the right to know what the products they buy are made of.

The Bush administration knows that it cannot tell American consumers that it doesn't care about the safety of the products they buy, the air they breath and the water they drink. Taking a page from the Reagan administration it doesn't eliminate regulatory agencies. Rather it slashes their budgets and appoints directors opposed to the agency's mission.

Management lawyers hostile to unions are appointed to run the National Labor Relations Board. Representatives of mining and oil companies head the Environmental Protection Agency. Horse lawyers are appointed to lead FEMA. Foxes are appointed to run the chicken coop.

The results are as predictable as they are bad.

The global economy has intensified the need for regulation. Many of the developing nations lack product safety standards or the mechanisms to enforce standards if they have them.

In large part globalization is nothing more than an effort by US based corporations to escape the regulatory framework constructed by the citizens of this country to tame the ravages of 19th Century industrial capitalism. In their drive to lower their costs of production and increase their profits, corporations search the globe for countries without labor, consumer and environmental regulations.

The only thing standing between your child or grandchild and lead poisoning is the hated government bureaucrat and the consumer protection regulations they enforce. The Bush administration and its minions want to return us to the not so good old days of the 19th Century. It's up to Congress to stop them.

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