Basic rules, enforcement enable society to function

Reprinted from the Everett Herald:

I confess I speed when traffic allows. But I never go more than 10 mph over the speed limit. That’s not due to my general law-abiding nature, concern for public safety or desire to conserve gas. It’s knowing that a State Patrol trooper with a radar gun might be lurking around the next bend.

Sometimes I resent that brake on my speed. But I’m also glad that someone is keeping the truly crazy drivers from endangering us all.

One of the basic functions of government is to set and enforce rules that keep us safe and give us the confidence to participate in the market economy. Because of government regulation, food we buy and water from the tap don’t make us sick, buildings and bridges don’t collapse, and medicines don’t kill us — or when they do, it’s a rarity that dominates the headlines.

At this point in the global economic meltdown, everyone concedes we should have had better government oversight of the financial industry. Unfortunately, 28 years of government bashing and six years of anti-regulators, government-downsizers, and pro-privatizers running amok in Washington, D.C., have put many of the protections we’ve long taken for granted in jeopardy.

A scan through the reports of the non-partisan Government Accountability Office reveals growing gaps in government oversight. The Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for ensuring the safety of 80 percent of the U.S. food supply, examined less than 1 percent of the fresh produce imported into the United States from 2002 through 2007. As the department’s workload has increased, the number of inspectors has decreased. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, between 2003 and 2006, federal inspections on both domestic and imported food sources dropped by 47 percent.

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of contractors increased by 139 percent from 2000 to 2006, while federal staff increased by only 3.5 percent, leading to problems with control, supervision and low morale — even as we face the proliferation of new diseases such as avian flu and drug resistant infections.

The Department of Labor is supposed to ensure that workers are paid minimum wage and receive overtime pay, yet understaffing and the resulting delays too often render enforcement meaningless. The GAO documented cases in which backlogs kept the department from investigating complaints until the statute of limitations was about to expire or the business closed — so the cases were dropped.

The scandalous conditions — including moldy walls and vermin infestation — that surfaced last year at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center resulted in part from privatizing mania. The Army Times reported that when a private company with ties to Halliburton took over facilities management in early 2007, only 50 workers were hired to do the job that had formerly been performed by 300 federal employees.

According to testimony before the Senate Finance Committee in May, staffing at the Social Security Administration has been reduced to the point that citizens are having difficulty collecting the benefits they’ve earned. Calls go unanswered from one-fourth to one-half the time. Those filing for disability benefits frequently face delays of two years. With baby boomers on the brink of retirement, President Bush’s budget cut Social Security staffing by more than 9 percent from 2005 to 2009.

At the state level, too, the size and scope of government — and the implicit assumption that smaller government is better — has been a major focus in the governor’s race.

We’ve learned in the past few weeks how quickly things collapse when people lose confidence. We need to re-empower government at all levels to provide basic regulation and enforcement. Unless we as consumers, along with farmers, retailers and private enterprise in general can rely on basic guarantees of safety, our economy will experience storm after storm.

Of course, government too requires oversight. That’s the point of democracy. We get to change decision makers when we don’t like the direction things are going. Part of the wrong direction this nation has taken the past eight years is the demonization of regulation and the adulation of private enterprise.

We all chafe sometimes at rules, but we need them just the same, and we need someone to enforce them.

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Posted in A Fair Deal at Work, Column, Educational Opportunity, K-12 Education

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