TO REGULATE OR DEREGULATE? THAT IS THE QUESTION

Regulations put in place after the financial collapse of 1929 and the resultant Great Depression served the country well. The current push for deregulation began with the deregulation of the railroad and trucking industries in the late 1970s. The consensus at the time was that regulations in these industries were not serving the public interest. Initial deregulation efforts worked to eliminate regulations that favored existing corporations and prevented competition from start-ups and innovators.

In 1982, anti-trust laws were used to break-up the AT&T monopoly on telephone service and introduce competition into the long-distance phone market. This reflected both strong regulation – the breaking up of a large corporation using anti-trust laws – and a belief that deregulation of the long-distance phone market coupled with the introduction of competition would best serve consumers.

During the late 1980s, the focus shifted to deregulation that benefited corporations rather than the public interest. Deregulation became “a mantra that can be translated to mean: let corporate America do more of whatever corporate America wants to do.” [1]

A telling example of this change in attitude is seen in the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s (CPSC) history. It was created in 1972 to protect consumers from dangerous products. It is responsible for the safety of all consumer goods except vehicles, guns, food, drugs, and cosmetics. Initially, it had 786 employees. However, as the regulatory focus shifted to benefiting corporations, it fell out of favor. In 2016, before Trump’s election, it was down to 567 employees, despite significant growth in the economy and in imports. Many imported products come from low wage countries with minimal safety standards. Therefore, the need for the CPSC to inspect and regulate goods has increased, while its capacity to do so has decreased. [2]

In a glaring example of its failure to live up to its initial promise and goals, in 2007, imported toys for young children that had lead paint (a neurotoxin) were not detected until well after the fact. For example, 1.5 million Thomas the Train components that had been imported and sold had to be recalled. [3] The weakening of the CPSC is occurring even though it reports that deaths, injuries, and property damage from consumer product incidents cost more the $1 trillion each year.

Since the late 1980s, the push for deregulation has reduced product safety standards; relaxed regulation of mergers, acquisitions, and financial practices (including allowing virtual monopolies); reduced on-the-job protections for workers; and weakened enforcement in many areas. Simultaneously, deregulation of the labor market has weakened workers’ bargaining power. The regulations that supported workers’ ability to bargain collectively with employers, largely through unions, have been undermined and weakened repeatedly since the 1980s. The formation of a union is now more difficult, while the ability to eliminate unions by outsourcing jobs overseas or hiring “replacement” workers has been made easier. As a result, union membership for private sector workers has declined from 25% in 1972 to 6% today.

Weak labor market regulation has allowed dramatic growth in the number of part-time, temporary, contracted, and consultant workers. This has undermined the economic security of the middle and working class, which was based on a full-time job with benefits. The explosive growth of the “gig” economy reflects this trend. Corporate employers have used the weak regulation of the labor market to restructure the workforce and reduce workers’ pay and benefits. As a result, fewer and fewer workers have employer provided health insurance, and when they do have it, they are typically paying a greater share of the cost and/or are footing the bill for higher co-payments for seeing doctors or getting prescription drugs. The guaranteed retirement incomes of pensions are largely a thing of the past. Workers are now much more likely to have to self-fund retirement through contributions to retirement savings accounts (sometimes with employer matching contributions). Furthermore, the investment decisions and risk fall on the worker. This decreases economic security for workers and gives financial corporations and advisors opportunities to charge fees and make commissions that often undermine the return on investment for workers, who typically are not sophisticated investors. As a result, workers are much less likely to be able to afford to retire at normal retirement age and are less likely to be financially secure in retirement.

The financial collapse of 2008, which was caused by the deregulation of the financial industry, robbed many in the working and middle class of their living standard and the last vestiges of their economic security. It destroyed many of their middle-class jobs and also their equity in their homes. Over 60% of U.S. households experienced a decline in wealth and many of those who didn’t lose wealth simply didn’t have any savings or assets to lose (e.g., the young and the poor). Although the high unemployment of the Great Recession has now finally declined after 8 years, high under-employment remains. Many workers are now in lower paying jobs for which they are over-qualified or are working part-time or in the “gig” economy instead of in full-time jobs, let alone ones with benefits.

Simultaneously, these workers watched the federal government bailout the Wall Street corporations and allow their executives not only to avoid penalties or jail, but to continue to enjoy huge paydays. There was no bailout for homeowners or laid off workers.

Although Republicans have typically been the politicians leading the charge on deregulation for the benefit of big corporations, many Democrats have not been far behind in their support of the deregulation agenda. Somewhat surprisingly, big corporations themselves have largely escaped the wrath of workers and the public, at least to-date. [4] This is partly because neither of our major political parties or any other powerful group has pointed the finger in their direction. Conversely, there are well-funded media, think tanks, public relations, and other initiatives that have promoted the deregulation and pro-corporate message.

My next post will link deregulation and its effects with the election of President Trump.

[1]      Warren, E., 2017, “This fight is our fight: The battle to save America’s middle class,” Metropolitan Books, NY, NY. p. 79

[2]      Steinzor, R., 4/17/17, “The war on regulation,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/war-regulation-0)

[3]      Lipton, E., & Barboza, D., 6/19/07, “As More Toys Are Recalled, Trail Ends in China,” The New York Times

[4]      Kuttner, R., 4/7/17, “Corporate America and Donald Trump,” The American Prospect (http://prospect.org/article/corporate-america-and-donald-trump)

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