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On art, confronting corporations and regulatory chill

I've been rocking out to some Rage Against the Machine lately. They're a band I had kinda forgotten about for much of the last decade, although like many people of my generation, they were my first exposure to a politics that went beyond the staid participation in ballot box politics that characterized many of the older folk in my life. While my hometown of Louisville was a center for "straight edge culture" much of the early 1990s, RATM had lyrics that addressed that went beyond personal politics and to the interconnections between oppression at home and abroad, and was unflinchingly committed to social change. For instance, take this lyric from 1999's "Ashes in the Fall":

Ain't it funny how the factory doors close
Round the time that the school doors close
Round the time that the doors of the jail cells
Open up to greet you like the reaper

This perspective fits very comfortably with that of HBO's "The Wire," another recent obsession at my household. Art, unlike some of the politics of the policy-making process, can make a clarion call for change that is not bogged down in wonkish qualifications on legislation, for instance. It seems that the art community is way out ahead of the broader progressive community in terms of ability to communicate a message and create a popular desire for change.

By contrast, industry holds hegemonic sway in Washington. At an event held this morning at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, representatives from the Bush administration, and toy and retail industries - despite a year of record outcry about imported product safety - brazenly held forth about how, in their opinion, the public and the government has little to no role in regulatory checks and balances. Corporations can do it better. Among some of the choicer quotes:

  • "While we welcome lower lead standards, they are difficult to implement in the next year. We may have already placed our Christmas orders months ahead. We will be covered this year by the same high lead standard that has protected consumers for years."
  • "We think that the recent recalls do not indict the system. On a
    strict numerical basis, we’re consistent with past years. The CPSC is
    getting more efficient… like the private sector, the public sector is
    getting better at doing more with less. The recalls of the last year
    show that the current system of self-reporting is working."
  • "We’ve heard from our supply chain that the costs of complying
    with duplicative testing – and a CBO study confirmed this – increase
    the costs to consumers by 10%. This is not a good thing for consumers."
  • "there’s no credible report of injury from lead inside the
    products… we should focus on hazards that post the biggest threat… it
    would be shame if parents were looking through their toy box while
    ignoring their window sills."
  • "Our economic viability has to do with confidence of consumers,
    with our brand integrity. There are specific complexities to sourcing
    overseas, in addition to the efficiencies and cost savings from this
    vast production capacity. The worst thing that could happen is that we
    turn inward, that we turn protectionist. The marketplace is much more
    complex than the 1950s’ model of domestic supply."

  • There were loads of other good nuggets on the ongoing attemptsby
    Congress to put together a Consumer Product Safety Commission bill,
    including slams on CPSC disclosure to the public of company
    information, on efforts to create a STOP button to block unsafe imports
    at the ports, on an increased role for state attorney generals (who are
    apparently "political people" in contrast to Bush appointee Nancy
    Nord), and the Senate for not getting permission from industry before
    writing their bill.

That industry lobbyists feel they can even getting away with suggesting that parents' safety concerns are not real, or that the industry can self-regulate, just indicate how far we've come from any sense of shared societal responsibilities and class co-existence.

But what's even more disheartening is the reaction from "the other side of the aisle." Progressives on our side are often having the debate while looking at their own feet, fixated on the legislative details while corporations rule the roost.

From inside the halls of Congress, it's even worse. Even though the import safety crisis is THE reason why there's a major CPSC debate this year, the House Energy and Commerce Committee admitted that it wouldn't be addressing the public outcry over imports in its CPSC legislation because World Trade Organization rules block them from addressing the issue.

A lawyer for the committee said that, after consulting with USTR, the Democrats could not come up with a way to increase CPSC's authority over imports, to establish a STOP button that could halt unsafe imports at the ports, or to establish that importers post a bond to cover the cost of recalls - VERY minimal reforms I might add - because 

"We were very concerned that when it came to the trade authority process, we wanted to ensure that no provisions would run afoul of the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade agreement ... [on the STOP button] it made us uncomfortable to halt imports under mere suspension of non-compliance. The arbitrary use of this authority might be an unwarranted barrier to trade... [and on the bonding requirement] Our committee staff looked at this issue, and we weren’t able to find a WTO-compliant method of doing this."

It's pretty rare that a policymaker is so candid about their reasons for not adopting progressive domestic legislation. As we document in our latest reports on toy and food safety, the threat from the WTO and other FTAs is real. But the answer isn't to back off of pursuing progressive legislation - the answer is to move forward with, while also renegotiating the international rules. Indeed, the total cave-in of the House on this issue in the latest bill illustrates the folly of moving along just one of the tracks. In short, we need to take away the excuse that our elected officials have for not meeting our desires.

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