Is our food safe? What about the drugs we take? The cars we drive and the products we buy? Are the banks, credit card companies and lenders dealing fairly with us? In each case, federal agencies are charged with making sure the answer is “yes.” But examples of unsafe products and unfair practices abound in the marketplace.
For years, General Motors hid from regulators evidence that an ignition switch the company used in its Cobalts, Opels, Pontiacs, and Saturns had such a hair trigger that a light brush by the driver’s hand or knee would shut down the engine, disabling air bags and power steering. The resulting loss of control caused at least 13 fatal accidents. GM's ability to avoid detection for so many years says as much about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's weak enforcement record as anything.
Other examples abound. From tainted peanut butter to toxic drywall, to lead-laden imported toys, such instances of unsafe food, drugs, automobiles and products are all too dangerous evidence of a failed system of regulation and enforcement. Often the failure is the result of neglect – a lack of political will to spend the money required to conduct meaningful research and enforcement. Sometimes the cause is ideological: a conviction that safeguards interfere unduly with industry profits. Either way, the result is that industry is spared the costs of being accountable for unsafe production practices, shifting those costs instead to consumers in the form of injuries, illness and worse.
Below, see what CPR Members Scholars and staff have had to say about it in reports, testimony, op-eds and more. Use the search box to narrow the list.
Writing for the Regulatory Review, CPR's Wendy Wagner observes that "Meaningful communication is vital to most legal processes. So when sellers withhold key information from customers, such as high service fees on a cell phone contract, or when companies conceal key information about public health or financial risks from regulators, the law is generally swift to sanction them." So, what happens when sellers disclose information, but do it in a way that's incomprehensible to their customers, as in all those online "terms and conditions" we all click through mindlessly? Wagner has a proposal.
Despite 40 years of regulatory effort, chemical regulation in the United States has been a dismal failure, and our current law – the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) – deserves much of the blame for this regulatory dysfunction. When Congress enacted TSCA, the final legislation reflected a deal under which chemicals then on the market were “grandfathered” in, while new chemicals would be subject to a quick review by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But experience shows that a vast majority of those reviews are based on inadequate data.
In his 2011 book, Legally Poisoned: How the Law Puts Us at Risk from Toxicants, published by Harvard Univesity Press, CPR Member Scholar Carl Cranor offers up a scientifically rigorous legal analysis arguing that just as pharmaceuticals and pesticides cannot be sold without pre-market testing, other chemical products should be subject to the same safety measures. Cranor shows, in terrifying detail, what risks we run, while making clear that it is entirely possible to design a less dangerous commercial world.
Reasonable people disagree about the reach of the federal government, but almost everyone believes the government should protect us from such dangers as bacteria-infested food, harmful drugs, toxic pollution, crumbling bridges, and unsafe toys. And yet, the agencies that shoulder these responsibilities are in shambles; if they continue to decline, lives will be lost, money wasted, and natural resources squandered. In their 2010 book, The People's Agents and the Battle to Protect the Public: Special Interests, Government, and Threats to Health, Safety, and the Environment, Rena Steinzor and Sidney Shapiro take a hard look at the tangled web of problems that have led to the dire state of the American regulatory structure.
Writing on the Center for American Progress website, Tom McGarity observes that seven months into the discovery of Mad Cow disease in a Washington state cattle herd, it's time for the Bush Department of Agriculture to have a comprehensive plan. But the so-called "firewalls" it touts are more about public relations than food safety.