Sunday, October 04, 2009

The Question of Regulation


In the week that I finished all 1,069 pages of Atlas Shrugged, how curious that we would sit next to a flaming Libertarian at a friend’s 60th birthday party last night. I thought he and my husband might break out into a fist fight at one point, as I sat back and listened to the modern interpretation of what I had just read.

Ayn Rand is revered by any Libertarian who knows his stuff. These people turn to her writing as if it were their Bible. The tome I just read depicted the end of society as we know it under increasing government intervention.

Last night I pretty much agreed with Mr. Libertarian that unions were the downfall of the US auto industry. My husband, however, recounted horror stories of his father working on the Ford assembly line in the days before the unions.

Mr. Libertarian claimed that sweat shops were not nearly as bad as they had been depicted and that most people only worked in such conditions for a short time (and so therefore they were OK???)

We moved on to discuss the meat industry. Whereas most Americans would credit Upton Sinclair for initiating government regulation, Mr. Libertarian was dead set against any form of government inspection.

Then today I read the story on the front page of the NYT about the 22-year-old woman who was paralyzed by an extreme encounter with E. coli, the result of a bad burger. And I say, “But I thought we had initiated inspections to catch this stuff before it ends up in people’s stomachs.”

It would appear the inspections simply can’t deal with the enormity of the problem in today’s meat processing industry. I was revolted to read that:

-- Meat producers use a combination of sources to cut their costs by as much as 25%.
-- Fatty trimmings are treated with ammonia to kill bacteria.
-- Carcasses are washed with hot water and lactic acid before sending them to the cutting floor.
-- The low-grade ingredients come from parts of the cow that are more likely to have had contact with feces, which carries E. coli.
-- Many suppliers will sell their meat to a processor only if testing for E. coli is done on the FINAL product, so as to avoid being blamed if and when contamination occurs.

It made me suspicious of most commercially processed ground meat. It reinforced my commitment to buy meat from Polyface.

Meanwhile a beautiful young woman’s life is wrecked by a tainted hamburger. And as many as 940 have been sickened by this particular episode of E. coli. Cargill, the processor, is bracing for the inevitable law suits. But the odds are that another company will be the culprit in the near future.

Here’s a place where I definitely differ with the Libertarians, who would get rid of all forms of government regulation. I, on the other hand, would push for sweeping changes in the meat industry to significantly reduce if not altogether eliminate the chance for contamination and infection. I will support inspections every step of the way, but only if they work to eliminate the problem.

It would seem we have created a monster that even extreme measures are failing to bring under control.

11 Comments:

Blogger Terry said...

I quit buying ground beef many years ago and do not eat burgers in fast food places at all. Disgusting stuff. It even smells vile when it is cooking. I remember when my Mom made hamburgers when I was a child. They smelled and tasted wonderful. There is bad, bad stuff in what is being sold today. Yech.

2:03 AM  
Blogger media concepts said...

John Kenneth Galbraith:

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

2:07 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Terry -- Yes, bad, bad stuff in general. I trust my ground beef from Polyface, but that's only because I know exactly how it's raised and processed.

MC -- So well said. Sadly that's what it all comes down to.

2:12 PM  
Blogger bulletholes said...

Did you enjoy the book Barbara?

4:16 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

BH -- I loved the book. I was so sorry when it was over. You can tell Ayn Rand was a genius, even if her politics weren't exactly aligned with mine.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Merle Sneed said...

I don't think unions killed the car business. They just participated.

Cheap gas made it possible for the car companies to build big cars, with big profit margins. Their deals with the unions made survival possible only as long as buyers kept buying them.

Once the market shut down for trucks and SUVs, they were doomed.

I ate my last burger over 35 years ago. the stuff creeps me out.

4:55 PM  
Blogger media concepts said...

I missed the part about the unions. Three responses:

1. whatever the unions have achieved, they bargained for with the auto companies. The companies had as much, and probably a lot more, money, power, and fancy lawyers and negotiators, so anything the companies agreed to, they must have thought it was good for business.

2. The unions didn't decide to keep making giant gas-guzzling cars and SUVs, and to fail to react as gas prices kept climbing and companies like Toyota and Honda filled a growing demand for more fuel-efficient cars. Those decisions were solely in the hands of the car companies' executives.

3. Most people agree that employee health care costs add hundreds of dollars to each U.S. car (I think I have read it's $1500), and that makes it more difficult to compete with foreign car companies who don't have to pay those costs. But the foreign companies don't pay the costs because their countries' governments, to one degree or another, pay the costs. Those foreign workers have health care coverage, and it's usually very comprehensive!

4:07 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Merle, MC -- As for unions, every time I visited Detroit over the years my brother-in-law, who had a blue collar job at Chrysler, would go on and on about how much the unions were demanding and getting. I quickly realized his health care plan was far superior to my govt plan. I started to see the writing on the wall as Japanese cars became more and more popular.

My husband's response to this is that it was not the unions, but rather the lack of focus on QUALITY that did the US car industry in. Decades ago a guy named W. Edwards Deming, who ironically began his career as a statistician at the Census Bureau (where I used to work), tried to interest the auto industry in measures to improve quality. They flatly turned him down and he went and implemented his ideas in Japan. The rest is history.

5:27 PM  
Blogger media concepts said...

I agree with your husband about quality. And you can read all about Deming in David Halberstam's book "The Reckoning," which details how Japan beat the U.S. in making and selling cars. Interestingly, Ford finally hired Deming late in his life to bring his quality methods back to the U.S. for Ford's "Quality is Job 1" campaign in the 1980s, from which the very successful Taurus emerged. And Ford today is doing much better than GM or Chrysler, didn't even take bailout money, so who knows?

I did hear today that investments in employee health care pay off in higher productivity, so perhaps that $1500 per car in the U.S. is well spent, and, without health care coverage, U.S. auto workers arguably would put out an even worse product.

3:28 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

So many thoughts, where to start? I have mixed feelings on unions. I believe that they were formed for very good reasons and have done very good things; though, I fear that many have moved from helping members to helping themselves, often to the detriment of the industries they serve.

As for the meat industry, between the girl with the burger, Fast Food Nation and Omnivore's Dilemma, I'm glad I don't eat it. (I know I can get sick from vegetables, too, but the meat industry seems like it can be particularly dangerous.)

I think the high cost of cheap goods is one of our biggest problems. We don't want to pay for quality - cars, food, service - but we end up paying so, so much.

8:40 AM  

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