The holiday tale of Ebenezer Scrooge provides a useful vehicle for illustrating the message of a new report, Sensible Safeguards: The Gift that Keeps on Giving.
The ghost of Christmas past: When A Christmas Carol was written in 1843, England's early industrial revolution was unencumbered by employment law, workplace safety standards, or any semblance of public health standards. We can all conjure an image of grimy, asthmatic children working 12-hour days in factories until their lungs gave out or they lost a hand. We remember when the "medicine" sold by legitimate doctors in Eastern cities or by traveling "snake oil" salesmen was just packaged opiates. We know about the filthy meatpacking plants in Chicago a century ago when severed fingers or whole rats might find their way into packaged meat. We have photographs of American rivers that actually caught fire in 1969 because of the industrial waste flowing directly into them.
The ghost of Christmas present: Today, employment laws and workplace safety rules have dramatically improved workplace safety and keep children out of the labor force. Auto and highway safety rules have made the drive to Grandma's much safer -- reducing the number of people killed in traffic accidents by 163,000. Food safety standards have made botulism in canned goods a relic of the past. Consumer Product Safety Commission inspectors kept more than two million hazardous imported toys out of American homes this past year. And landfill rules now ensure a third of the trash we produce -- 83 million tons -- is recycled each year.
Most of these common sense protections were established by Republican as well as Democratic lawmakers 40 or 50 years ago. This is because politicians from both parties understood that a good society requires rules and standards of responsible behavior -- for individuals and for businesses. They knew that standards allow responsible companies to profit and thrive; a lack of standards gives employers who don't pay a decent wage or run safe businesses a leg up on the good guys.
The ghost of Christmas yet-to-come: These advances in health and safety have not been uncontested, and we shouldn't assume they'll survive without our vigilance. As corporate entities have gotten bigger and more political, we've seen an organized effort to undermine government protections. Happily, the generic attack "all regulations are bad" loses support when the protections at stake are specified; people want clean air and water, safe food, lead-free toys, and nontoxic drugs.
But the behind the scenes, the attack on protections has gained ground. Over the past couple of decades, corporate lobbyists have successfully slowed the ability of public agencies to enforce existing laws. New cost-benefit requirements have been imposed, more reviews by White House officials stall protections that would save lives, and more protections are challenged in court. It can take up to 10 years to improve a standard that enforces existing law. For example, despite clear scientific evidence that silica dust in the workplace causes an unnecessary respiratory death every five days, allowable levels of dust have not been lowered.
So how do we ensure a happy ending? When Ebenezer Scrooge saw the miserable, lonely death his actions were leading him to, he dramatically changed course and became a good philanthropist. We can hope the Koch brothers have a similar conversion. Or we can look to Frank Capra's version of this Christmas story. In It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey's angel shows him the contributions his life made to his community -- so that he can better appreciate what he has today.
When the American public recognizes the way sensible standards and safeguards undergird the quality of life we all take for granted, our Christmases yet-to-come will be something grand.
An epilogue: We produced a sweet, short video holiday card for our friends this year, asking them to remember the public workers who enforce our health and safety standards.
This gentle seasonal greeting elicited a tsunami of vitriol from the Reason Foundation, the Mercatus Center, and their followers who called us "brown shirts," "statists," and "idiots." A reminder that there are lots of scrooges in the world.
Clarence, we have a list of people for you to visit.