OPINION: Here’s why we need government regulations

You’ve seen the videos, I’m sure. A father of two small children gets thrown off a red-eye flight by Delta Airlines despite having paid for the seat the airline wanted to give to someone else. He at least kept his teeth intact, unlike the doctor who got dragged kicking and screaming off an overbooked United flight a few weeks earlier.

Those videos resonated at two levels for most of us. First we were astounded by the sheer inhumanity of them – how could you toss two toddlers off a plane with no place to stay that night? At a second level, though, those scenes served as metaphors for the way many of us feel treated by big corporations, whether they are insurance companies, banks or airlines.

So kudos to U.S. Rep. Mike Turner for sponsoring the “Hands Off” bill which, if it passes – and that’s no sure thing, given how dysfunctional Congress is right now – will provide some measure of consumer protection for airline passengers in the future.

The legislation would impose a regulation on the airline industry, and we all hate regulations, don’t we? Many of Donald Trump’s executive orders have rolled back or undone varieties of regulations. Republicans, in particular, hate regulations so much they often call them “job-killing regulations.” The “Hands Off” proposal, therefore, provides a useful lesson about the nature of those government regulations that get such a bad rap.

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Our modern system of regulating industry started with sausages. Just over a century ago, journalist Upton Sinclair wrote an expose of the meatpacking plants in Chicago and revealed to the nation just what was being ground-up and stuffed into our morning breakfast links. It wasn’t pretty.

Among those who had their stomachs turned was President Theodore Roosevelt — a Republican, as a matter of fact. Outraged at the meatpacking industry’s pursuit of profit at the expense of public health and safety, he created the Food and Drug Administration in 1907. Likewise, our system of financial regulations began with the Great Depression when the nation’s financial system collapsed between 1929-1933.

The first thing to understand about regulations is that the vast majority of them are reactions to something bad that has happened. Like meat-processing plants infested with rats; like the discovery that cigarettes cause cancer; or like people being forced off airplanes. Work-place safety regulations began to be passed only after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 killed 146 female garment workers in a factory whose doors had been locked from the outside.

The second thing to notice is that regulatory laws – like the “Hands Off” bill – are usually pretty popular. Most people, it turns out, want to drink clean water, and they don’t want to worry that there is borax in their breakfast meat (a common practice 100 years ago). The fact that your bank savings won’t disappear even if your bank goes under, which happened to thousands of Americans early in the 1930s, is thanks to FDIC.

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The last thing to know is that regulations don’t eliminate jobs. When Mike Pence was giving away tax breaks to keep a Carrier plant in Indiana, he claimed that the factory was being forced to close because of regulations. When asked what those regulations were, Carrier officials couldn’t come up with a single one. In fact, regulations can help create consumer and investor confidence that promotes economic activity. If sausage plants ran the way they did in 1907, we’d probably all be vegetarians.

If Congressman Turner gets his bill passed, we’ll all be pretty happy about that, too. It won’t spare us all the indignities we now endure at the hands of the airlines, but it’s a start. How long, do you think, before some other politician starts calling these modest passenger protections “job-killing regulations”?

Steven Conn, one of our regular contributors, is the W. E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University.

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