I wonder where they live, those writers of recent editorials who extol the virtues of the “free market” while decrying the evils of “progressives” and – horror of horrors – Socialists? It certainly isn’t this country.
The Progressive era, from the late 1890s to about 1920, ushered in a long list of reforms and legislation at the local, state, and federal levels. Before the passage of the Meat Inspection Act, and the Pure Food and Drug Act, there was no government agency to make sure that food, drugs, or any product was safe. Progressives urged cities to pass laws setting standards for housing to eliminate the worst tenements, and for sanitation such as garbage collection and sewage systems.
Progressives understood that – just as today – when businesses become too big and powerful (monopolies, oligopolies, and monophonies), they could exploit consumers and workers and drive out small businesses. Progressives believed that the government needs to regulate the power of corporations through anti-trust laws and government agencies such as Federal Trade Commission.
But it was in the area of labor that Progressives played the most important role. Among their initiatives were factory safety regulations, limits on working hours (mainly for women), compensation for workplace injuries, and restrictions on child labor. Labor unions implemented these measures by organizing workers to bargain with their employers, and an alliance of middle-class and working-class reformers was successful in convincing most states to pass factory inspection laws, workers comp, and minimum age of employment laws.
In the 1930s, FDR’s New Deal stabilized the economy and provided relief to those suffering during the Great Depression. Over the next eight years, the federal government instituted a number of social programs, perhaps the most important being Social Security. The New Deal fundamentally and permanently changed the federal government’s relationship with its citizens.
I’ve submitted the following before, but it’s just as timely now while the Republicans in Congress are making noise about the need to cut programs such as Medicare, and Trump continues to eliminate environmental regulations. I suggest they read this column and consider how much of it applies to their own lives.
She gets up at 6am and fills her coffeepot with water; she knows the water is safe because the EPA ensures water quality. She has eggs and bacon for breakfast; the bacon is safe because the Department of Agriculture regulates the meat processors. When she showers, she reaches for the shampoo; the ingredients are on the label because the Federal Trade Commission requires that consumers know what they put on – and in – their bodies.
She takes her medications, also safe because the Food and Drug Administration evaluated their safety; all but $10 of their cost is covered by her employer’s health plan, which was negotiated by a union she doesn’t belong to. She is considering changing jobs, but she would be dropped from her employer’s health plan. About six years ago she was diagnosed with a chronic illness; because of this pre-existing condition, her premiums would increase from $400 to about $3,000 a month. But then she found a health plan available on the ACA marketplace. She will be able to purchase a plan she could afford from the same insurer she has now.
When she leaves her house – bought with an FHA-insured mortgage – she breathes fresh air because the government imposed air-quality standards on nearby industries and got lead out of gasoline. She gets in her car for the drive to work. Her car is safer (air bags, seat belts, etc.) because the Department of Transportation requires it. She drives on highways built and maintained by the government and which cost much more than vehicle owners like her pay in gasoline taxes. She transfers to public transit which is also supported by the government. If she gets hurt on the job or laid off, she can count on mandated workers compensation or unemployment benefits.
Later, she makes a deposit at a federally-insured and supervised bank, so she knows her money is safe. Her children live in an area served by the federally-owned Tennessee Valley Authority, so they don’t pay as much as most people for their electricity. She makes a payment on her federally-subsidized student loan, she also had a Pell Grant to help pay for her education at a state-supported university.
After work, she visits her parents’ house, which was originally financed by the Farmers’ Home Administration (banks didn’t make many loans in rural areas), and didn’t have electricity until the federal Rural Electrocution Administration sponsored rural electric co-ops. Her parents are retired, but they receive Social security benefits and a pension negotiated on their behalf by the unions they belonged to, and are covered by Medicare. They have discounted telephone service (a/k/a/ an Obama phone) through the federal Lifeline program, and receive help paying their utility bills from the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
On her way home, she turns on her car radio to listen to a talk show host rail against the intrusion of “big government” into our lives. “Yes,” our protagonist agrees, “we don’t need those tax-and-spend liberals. I’m a self-made man, and I take care of myself. Everyone should.”