If You Forget History, Remedial Lessons Will Be Given

Over a year ago, I talked about the Clean Water Act, and then again about why regulations came into being.  In my post about the Clean Water Act, I said the following:

The same arguments that were trotted out in 1967 are in vogue today.  It’s “too expensive,”and  “too burdensome.”   It’s short-term thinking, and it’s sad.  There was a time when both parties said “enough!,” and thought that rivers shouldn’t catch on fire.  They had the will to do it, and it worked. Maybe it worked too well.  Maybe if they could still smell the rivers,  their constituents were getting sick with water-borne diseases, and they could watch fires on water, they’d realize that there was a problem.

In just the past few months, there have been a number of incidents which have, again, brought up the need for regulation and enforcement.   Besides the chemical spill by the ironically named “Freedom Industries,” West Virginia also had a massive coal slurry spill into the rivers from a company called “Patriot Coal.”  In North Carolina, a coal ash spill has contaminated the Dan River, which provides drinking water to two states.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog about why we need the EPA.

Not just to clean up the messes – or force the businesses responsible to clean them up – that they left in the past, but to keep them from making further messes.  Of course businesses don’t like it.   They’d rather socialize the cost of cleaning up their messes, and not have to take the responsibility.

As I said in that earlier post, there was a reason we have the laws and regulations we do today.  It sometimes is forgotten that these weren’t created by “ultraliberal socialists,” they were the result of bipartisan action.   They came into being because people got sick and tired of “business as usual” and wanted something done about it.  The problem is that as those reasons fade into the past, there’s always a group that thinks that “regulations are bad,” and that what we have today is not only “normal,” but would occur even without laws and regulations based on what the “free market” would do.

Thus, conservatives, funded by business interests, moved to reduce or remove regulations on things.  Where they couldn’t quite do that, they did something else – remove the enforcement.    Instead of repealing laws and regulations, you simply cut the budget for the responsible agency that enforces them.  Fewer inspectors, smaller budgets, and you have less oversight.  It was “stealth deregulation.”

The results have been predictable, not just in the environmental field.  Want to move crude oil around?  You need a pipeline or train to do it, and why bother making sure they’re inspected?  Of course companies will do it!  That is what they believe, until there’s an oil pipeline break, or a train derails and explodes outside a town.  Then you have a call for better regulations on trains and pipelines, often from the same people who were big believers in deregulation up until then.   You want cheap generic drugs?   What better course than to outsource that production to a country where labor is cheap?  Until, of course, it turns out that there are … problems.

NEW DELHI — India, the second-largest exporter of over-the-counter and prescription drugs to the United States, is coming under increased scrutiny by American regulators for safety lapses, falsified drug test results and selling fake medicines.

…India’s pharmaceutical industry supplies 40 percent of over-the-counter and generic prescription drugs consumed in the United States, so the increased scrutiny could have profound implications for American consumers.

Yes, nothing like free market, cheap pharmaceuticals that are manufactured in less than clean facilities, don’t have the drug they’re supposed to, or none at all to make someone think that “maybe we should regulate that.”

A study of history would show that people thought that in the past. Yes, back in the “good old days,” when capitalism reigned unfettered, it turned out that you couldn’t trust your food, medicines not only may not work, but were actively dangerous, pipelines broke, trains derailed, mines were dangerous and left miners with lifelong disabilities if they survived, the water could – and sometimes did – catch on fire, and the air wasn’t breathable.  So there came to be a political impetus to do something about it, and we have laws, regulations, and government enforcement agencies to make sure that didn’t happen anymore.

The problem was that because they were successful, people forgot the reason they were in place, and assumed that they weren’t needed.  That’s the thing about history, though.  If you forget, it will provide remedial lessons.  Right now, people in various states like West Virginia, North Carolina, and North Dakota are getting those lessons.  Whether they’ll learn from them, and whether conservatives can is the question.  Otherwise, they’re in store for more remedial education.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “If You Forget History, Remedial Lessons Will Be Given

  1. see above

    If I could be so bold as to provide another example. After the crash in 29, which bears extremely similar circumstances to the crash we still haven’t crawled out of, Glass Steagall was passed and for the first time in our nations history we saw 50 years with no bank crashes or bubbles. During RR presidency the first threads of it were pulled and approximately 10 years later we had the S&L crisis. Afew more threads were pulled and ten years later Enron. In 99 Bill Clinton signed Gramm, Leach Bliley which did away with the last vestiges of Glass Steagall and ten years later you know the story.
    What will it take for the average guy to realize we need to elect people who believe government has a purpose and it’s not to make life easy for the corporations.

    • Oh, I agree, but most people don’t either understand the financial sector very well, and outside of their bank or credit card company, don’t have personal experience with it. But there’s nothing like your water smelling like licorice, or seeing a train derail right outside your town – and the track run through town – and explode to make you realize that maybe government does have a function.

  2. nathkatun7

    Norbrook, as always, you are the master at zeroing in on real issues that affect ordinary people. Many of us in our 60s are children of parents who experienced and endured the Great Depression. It’s a shame that a significant number of us quickly forgot the stories told by our parents about the crucial role played by the Federal government to prevent the total economic destruction of the country. Instead, we’ve allowed the free market con men to trick us into believing that government is evil. Consequently, many people today are totally oblivious about the role the unregulated, free market, capitalism, played in crushing the economy and thus creating the Great recession of our time, which necessitated Federal government intervention..

    • It’s not just that we forgot what our parents or grandparents told us, some of us forgot what it was like in our own lifetimes. I can remember the stories about LA smog and rivers catching on fire, and I actually saw streams used as town sewers. In college, a lot of my environmental biology lab work was done one “what is in the system, now.” and it wasn’t things you’d want anywhere near you. So I can read the stories about what’s happening in China now, and remember that was … us … within my own lifetime. I know enough history to know that what we’re seeing in terms of labor conditions, adulterated foods, and fake/mislabeled drugs was here, the normal condition, back in what the right calls “the good old days.” I notice none of them ever want to live in those places, though.

      • nathkatun7

        ” I can remember the stories about LA smog and rivers catching on fire, and I actually saw streams used as town sewers”

        Indeed! I came to Southern California, from Oregon, in 1972; and believe me the smog over Los Angeles was still unbelievable. To this day, I still suffer from respiratory issues that I never had when I was in Oregon. Nevertheless, and thanks to government regulations, the air in LA, and Southern CA in general, is much, much, cleaner than it was in the 1970s.