Sam Uretsky

Straight Talk in Short Supply

Sen. Barak Obama has won the Democratic nomination for president in a year when running as a Democrat should be enough job security to get a mortgage approval. Even so, he has a challenging job in uniting the party, if not for the 2008 elections, then certainly for 2010. Sen. Obama ran a dignified campaign and attracted voters from across all areas of the electorate. That said, a significant portion of his victory is due to the support of young, first-time registrants and independents, while many older people who have supported the Democratic Party over the years voted for Sen. Clinton. While there are as many reasons for choice as there are voters, older people with lower incomes may feel a greater need for government support and protection than younger, better educated, more affluent voters.

Part of the challenge is that, as Sen. Obama’s well-educated supporters learned in Sociology 101, a charismatic leader must continually renew his charisma. Given the diversity of the American electorate, that can be a terrible challenge. In a speech in South Dakota, Sen. Obama was quoted as saying “You can’t get beef into Japan and Korea, even though, obviously, we have the highest safety standards of anybody, but they don’t want to have that competition from US producers,” These were strong words coming at a time when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was warning people not to eat tomatoes, and those grown in Central Florida remained on the high risk list.

This is national politics—we would all like to think well of ourselves, all like to pay lower taxes, and all like to be free of onerous regulations. We just see things differently from each other. The fact is, we don’t have the highest safety standards. Most of us do our jobs well and produce the best products and services, but in an interdependent society, there’s always a risk from those who don’t do as well—and the result has been a series of crises in our food and drug supply and now our banking industry. While the fault lies with the Bush administration and erosion of regulatory protections, it’s politically expedient to blame the Japanese and Koreans rather than ourselves. South Korea used to be the fifth largest importer of United States beef—until there were reports of Mad Cow disease in the United States. The Bush administration refused to increase inspections of cattle and prohibited individual producers from setting higher inspection standards. Japan similarly found that some United States imports failed to meet their safety standards. 

In 2006, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif., who endorsed Sen. Obama for the nomination) issued a report entitled “Weaknesses in FDA’s Food Safety System.” Globalization has resulted in need for tighter regulation and more inspections, both of imports and United States food producers—and the Bush administration has consistently cut back on the ability of the FDA to enforce its mandates. At the time the Waxman report was issued, the United States was dealing with contaminated spinach from California. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is proposing that once a drug has been approved by the FDA, patients injured by the drug should not be allowed to sue for damages, because the Food & Drug Administration is all the protection we need. The Bush administration had steadily cut the FDA budget, leading to fewer inspections of plants producing drugs bound for the United States, which caused a shortage of influenza vaccine and the deaths from tainted heparin.

The current recession, sparked by the mortgage crises, can be attributed to regulatory failure too. In 2005, even before the worst of the sub-prime mortgages were issued, consumer advocates were asking for increased regulation of mortgage lending, but administration advocates of free trade and deregulation maintained that everything was fine, and existing rules were adequate. In 1994, the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act authorized changes in the Truth in Lending Act that would have prohibited deceptive mortgage practices, but the rules didn’t get written until too late.

Tragically, we’ve had a government that wants to listen to our telephone calls, but doesn’t much care if our hamburger has Coliform bacteria. When the government of Korea tried to lower the safety standards on beef imports, thousands of people took to the streets and demanded that the president resign. In contrast, we’ve let our government lower our safety standards in the interest of being business-friendly, and we’re asking our trade partners to bring their own standards to our level.

We already know that the Straight Talk Express is as reliable as the No Spin Zone, but we have a right to expect better from the Democratic nominee. Repairing the damage of the Bush years may take decades, but the best place to start is from the truth.

Sam Uretsky is a writer and pharmacist living on Long Island, N.Y.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2008

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