I remember as a youngster believing that the President and the government would protect us from harmful things—like gas fumes at the pump and toys that broke off and could hurt babies and little children. Of course, I was quite young at the time, not even at double digits, the country was much more naive and Dwight Eisenhower was president. This was obviously a long time ago!
But I took the notion seriously that government had a moral and constitutional responsibility to protect the public and keep us from harms way—whether it be from enemies to our shores, criminals threatening our personal peace and safety or just known bad things being cast upon us by those who didn’t care about our well-being.
It turns out I, too, was very naive, and had a misplaced sense of what the government, at least in times of Ike,considered to be its responsibilities. But as our country has moved on, the role of government to protect us as consumers and as individuals has evolved. Particularly in the 1970’s, and somewhat ironically, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, the role of the EPA, the Consumer Protection Agency and other publicly concerned entities took a front-and-center position in helping protect our nation and our natural resources. After all, it was Richard Nixon who signed the Clean Water Act (although it was pushed heavily by the democratically controlled congress). To his credit, he also oversaw the first Environmental Protection Agency, committed to protecting our environmental health.
Fast-forward to today and we see a stark contrast between a national commitment to protect the public and an adminstration which has blatantly and shamelessly pronounced that the public health and consumer safety are of no concern to it. That seems to be the message of this week’s extraordinary conduct of one Nancy A. Nord, the acting chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The CPSC is the agency tasked with the responsibility to oversee the safety of more than 15,000 types of consumer products. It is this agency which has been under scrutiny as more and more of the thousands of products we import from China, especially toys with which our children play, turn out to be laced with poison. Primarily in the form of lead materials, our youngest children are being exposed to toxic materials known to cause brain damage and other serious health and safety consequences.
The public outcry has been predictably severe, after all, these are our children who are being knowingly exposed to dangerous substances. The question has been raised, “Where is the government in all this? Where is the agency that is supposed to protect against unsafe consumer products? Who is minding the store?”
The answer with this administration, in particular, has been that no one is minding the store. After all, the market can regulate itself and we don’t want to impose any regulation or restrictions that will interfere with a free and unregulated market. And therein lies the rub: The market has not and does not regulate itself. It only responds when it is finally CAUGHT. So millions of our children have been exposed to these dangerous materials. How many of them will suffer as a result? How many parents and loved ones will feel responsible for the consequences because the government has failed to protect them? And finally, how can this administration, that professes to want to protect America justify such neglect of its responsibilities?
The answer, sadly, is best summarized by the extraordinary response by the person who is in charge of protecting us from unsafe products. Appointed by George W. Bush to head an agency whose work and mandate she opposes, Ms. Nord publicly opposed legislation that will strengthen her agency’s ability to do its job.
On October 30th, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved a bill which would raise the CPSC budget, increase its staff and grant it “broad new powers to police the marketplace” on behalf of consumer safety.
The New York Times reported that Nord opposed the measure because it would “increase the maximum penalties for safety violations , make it easier for the government to make public reports of faulty products and protect industry whistleblowers and prosecute executives of companies that willfully violate the law.” In other words, she opposed a bill that would help her agency do its job in holding these companies accountable and deterring these dangerous abuses in the future– this from the person responsible for making sure we are protected from these very practices. Just imagine a District Attorney opposing legislation making his/her job easier to catch and prosecute the bad guy!
This legislation was precipitated by yet another recall in October of over half a million toys imported from China. Earlier we saw millions of other toys recalled for containing dangerous levels of lead and other safety problems. As if that weren’t enough to jump on the bandwagon and call for greater oversight and accountability, Ms. Nord completely missed the point, arguing instead that the latest recall came not for safety reasons, but simply because the contents violate the law. Huh?
Have the Bush free-marketeers gone so over the top that they don’t see that the public wants protection and deserves to be protected from dangerous products, especially those that harm their CHILDREN? Apparently not. Apparently the free-marketeers are so inflexible, so intractible, so unconcerned with the well-being of the people they are poisoning that they are even willing to so publicly condemn efforts to assure greater safety and protection of our people, and our children in particular.
If there are any Americans left who think this administration cares about them more than about big business and corporate profit, this should be the final nail in that coffin. This move toward even greater deregulation, greater unaccountability and responsibility to the public is straight out of the failed conservative ideology that the people are reacting to today. Bush’s dangerous and irresponsible commitment to ignore the public’s safety, heavens, our children’s safety, for the sake of corporate free- market is yet another example of his failed priorities and the failure of this administration to act in the best interests of the public he and his appointees are supposed to serve.
For the sake of our children and our planet we must change the dialogue and bring safety and responsibility back to the process. Our children deserve it and we must demand it. When an administration is reduced to such arrogance and misguided values so as to blatantly and publicly reject the safety of its people, it is time to send them packing.
It isn’t the 1950’s anymore. We aren’t naive about what is going on in the world and in the world of mulit-national commerce. And even our youngsters today know the government isn’t necessarily there to protect them. It is now our job to insist that it do so.