Viewpoint; Big-government opponents can’t have it both ways

By John Buell


While President Donald Trump’s xenophobic and misogynist agenda, thankfully often blocked by the courts, has received the lion’s share of attention, his henchmen have enacted a series of game-changing initiatives in federal regulation.

Deregulating such domestic concerns as transportation, occupational health and safety and the environment is hardly new.

From Jimmy Carter on, every president has promised to remove some regulations. What is unusual if not literally unique about the Trump presidency is the scope of the deregulatory initiative, the willingness to expand federal power on behalf of its deregulatory agenda and the explicit emphasis on profits as the goal of deregulation.

One little corner of the regulatory universe illustrates the logic — and the dangers — of this agenda. The Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration has repealed one of the last Obama-era regulations, a requirement that each freight and passenger train carry two engineers on board.

Though concerns about rail safety seem distant from our island community, we all have a stake in the politics of deregulation. The Trump administration now applies the same deregulatory logic to coal-fired power plants, thereby injuring those downwind of the worst polluters.

Justin Mikulka of the DeSmoog Blog reported that freight rail corporations argued that the companies running the trains are in the best position to assess safety requirements and should be given the flexibility to do so.

Worker, safety and environmental advocates maintain that modern technology makes the engineer’s job more stressful and that fatigue is a major risk factor for long-distance shipments.

A second engineer is indispensible. Freight corporations did concede that in the event of a crash, the second engineer would be helpful. Nonetheless, they assured doubters that first responders could fill any vacuum there.

The communities being charged with these new obligations already are fiscally strapped — compliments of the deregulators’ long-standing opposition to taxes and government spending. As for the rail companies’ self-regulation, Boeing’s experience with this model is hardly reassuring.

Nor should we take seriously the deregulators’ claimed hostility to big government.

Not willing to spend or regulate for public safety, they have no problem constraining local democratic initiatives. Many state and local governments, worried about the extreme risks posed by these trains, have enacted their own regulations.

Unfortunately the corporate deregulators have asserted the right of federal legislation to preempt state statutes. An assertion of the right to preempt is also a blow to future reforms. In federal systems, state governments often lead the way. Witness the role of California in air and vehicle regulations or Saskatchewan’s contribution to Canadian healthcare.

On occasion the deregulators make their motives explicit. Mikulk quotes Rep. Bill Shuster, who championed finding ways to “allow the railroad industry to keep more of their profits” at a hearing on pipeline and rail regulations.

In effect, DOT has internalized Milton Friedman. Economist Marshall Auerbach cites Friedman’s commandment that rather than worry about employees, customers, and the community at large, institutional investors should devise solutions to ensure the primacy of shareholder value. These should include hostile takeovers and the promotion of massive stock buybacks, which increase stock prices.

Deregulation, spurred by and in turn reinforcing a faith in shareholder value, drives the urge to open the Arctic wildlife preserve and to build pipelines to bring crude oil to market. On the other end of the petro pipeline, deregulatory and shareholder enthusiasm propel the demand that California relax fuel economy standards.

Talk about curbing big government is misleading. Federal deregulation of freight rail is impossible without federal government restrictions of local initiatives. Police power will also be key to completion of many projects, and federal aid will be essential in the likely event of accidents.

Boeing would not exist without massive military spending and probably will not survive without some form of federal bailout.

Ideas matter. There was money for deregulators in the post-New Deal era, but ideas like Friedman’s also energized and gave purpose to a whole generation. Opposing deregulation is necessary but not sufficient.

One specific example. Environmental and workplace regulation, though necessary, is often not very nimble. How does policy address this limitation without falling into the deregulation pit?

One can imagine federal and state laws mandating corporate safety committee composed of workers, outside experts protected against firing and having access to all production plans and facilities.

This committee would have the right to stop production. Such a model would amount to democratic decentralization, the best reply to deregulators’ attack on our health and welfare.

John Buell is a columnist for the Progressive Populist. He lives in Southwest Harbor.


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