Halloween without government isn’t just scary, it’s dangerous

by Elaine Mejia on October 31, 2014 in Feature

When Colorado voters passed Proposition 64 allowing marijuana for personal use, a process to regulate the product’s distribution and manufacture began. The Halloween season has sparked a fresh round of debate about how to regulate marijuana-infused candy, which might be given out to trick-or-treaters. While this new regulation process has been complicated for the state, watching it unfold has us at Public Works wishing other regulatory functions of government could garner even a fraction of this attention.halloween candy

It’s no one’s job to promote regulations that are already in place and that are working… and that’s a major problem. Remember the “aha” moment we all experienced when Elizabeth Warren whipped out a toaster on The Daily Show and told us there were more regulations in place to protect us from that meager appliance than there were to protect us from predatory mortgages?! It reminded us of the invisible, but life-saving, regulatory rules and enforcement that make it safe to make toast… and to let our kids take candy from strangers.

One of the best examples of a missed opportunity to explain the benefits of a regulation is last year’s 50th anniversary of the federal Clean Air Act. As far as I can tell, no set of regulations can lay claim to the level of impacts of this landmark legislation and the years of enforcement that have followed. A peer-reviewed study released in 2011 found that the benefits have outweighed the costs by a factor of 30 to 1—the report even stated that it could be as high as 90 to 1! That’s better than the odds of you reading the next sentence (and if you’re at this point, I already know you’re committed). Moreover the study found the Clean Air Act has single-handedly staved off 160,000 premature deaths!

The default American perception of regulation is that it should be employed only as a last resort, when all else fails, even though sometimes “when all else fails” means people die.

As people who care about government action, none of us wants to take a break from demanding that lawmakers act on the challenges before us RIGHT NOW, but the truth is that carving out even a small portion of our collective time to reveal the often hidden work of government regulation and speak to its benefits is actually a strategy for promoting new regulations, because it is the only thing that will undo that “when all else fails” mentality.

Think about this way. People who receive public services, or who have children in school, or who ride on public transit to work have advocates to plead their case, talk to the media, hand out flyers, launch campaigns and lobby policymakers. Regulations and the enforcers, for the most part, don’t have a natural constituency. If anything the constituency that is in favor of any particular regulation, be it stronger gun laws or requiring landlords to give ample notice of evictions, is often made up of people whose lives were shattered by a lack of regulation. In essence there has not been a constituency that sees it as its responsibility to tell the story of when regulation works. Rather, the organizations and activists that support a particular area of regulation, once they succeed, quickly moved on to their next demand, again joining the “government’s not doing its job” choir. That public cry has to be balanced with a public effort that tell the stories of government regulations when they succeed. The good news is that there is a relatively new coalition that is working to focus attention on the benefits of “Sensible Safeguards” with a website and ongoing activities worth checking out.

But each of us must also assume a small piece of the responsibility for telling the many success stories of the government protections we have enacted over many decades. If not we will continue to operate in a society in which government regulation is minimal and happens only after there is overwhelming evidence (often in the form of devastated lives) that regulations are essential. Telling these stories consistently just might mean that regulations will continue to protect us from defective toasters and pot-laced Halloween candy.

Happy Halloween everyone. Before you hit the streets check out the FDA’s Halloween Food Safety Tips for Parents.

Happy 50th birthday, Wilderness Act

by Public Works on October 31, 2014 in October 2014 eNewsletter

The Wilderness Act turned 50 last month. This article by Tom Dispatch in Nation of Change tells the story of this legislation—one of three monumental acts passed by Congress in 1964 (along with the Civil Rights Act and the Land … Continue reading

State and local government successes

by Public Works on October 31, 2014 in October 2014 eNewsletter

We’ve said time and time again that telling public stories about when government works well is important to rehabbing our national conversation about the public sector. That’s why we were thrilled to see this article in GovLoop, “Uncovering State and … Continue reading

Thank government for shark week?

by Public Works on October 31, 2014 in October 2014 eNewsletter

This article from PS Mag leads with the bad news about the health of the earth’s oceans, which isn’t the best strategy, as we often advise our partners. But it does pivot quickly to highlighting a public success story—the ways … Continue reading

Money and Politics

by Public Works on October 31, 2014 in October 2014 eNewsletter

Some of our fellow observers of the public debate contend that, before we can build support for public structures, we have to fix the broken political process. In particular, we have to remove the insidious influence of money, especially corporate … Continue reading

Millennials and public crowdsourcing

by Public Works on October 31, 2014 in October 2014 eNewsletter

Integrating the millennial generation into the process of governance offers new opportunities for public agencies and managers. For example, millennials have brought the power of crowdsourcing to local governments. This article in the Huffington Post explains how, using Jersey City … Continue reading

What affordable housing lingo is best?

by Public Works on October 31, 2014 in October 2014 eNewsletter

We engage with a lot of folks around the country who are working to make the public case for more investment in affordable housing. This article from Rooflines caught our eye because it discusses the pros and cons of the … Continue reading