Monday, April 29, 2013

Protecting Businesses From People

Last week, in the closing hours of the 2013 Indiana General Assembly session, one the bills being hotly debated was the so-called “ag-gag” bill (Senate Bill 373) that, as originally written, was intended to stop people from taking secret photos or videos of farms or industrial operations that might prove damaging or embarrassing to the owners of those operations. It appears that the principal motivation behind the bill was the concern expressed by some large-scale farming operations that animal rights activists were finding their way onto the farms (including by “fraudulently” applying for jobs) and then taking photos of inhumane treatment of animals. Similarly, within the industrial community, there is apparently concern about photos of poor working conditions being taken by whistleblowers.

As the legislative sessions progressed, the bill was expanded and restricted, modified and un-modified, and subject to all sorts of changes. It was the subject of fairly intensive debate. At one point, reporters began briefly referring to the bill not as the “ag-gag” bill but as the “gag all” bill after it was expanded to cover far, far more situations and to remove some of the safe harbors. In the end, the bill died because the House and Senate weren’t able (at least not within the fixed time available before the session was scheduled to end) to agree upon compromise language (though Speaker Brian Bosma today told reporters that it wasn’t his intent for the bill to die; he’d hoped that the Senate would approve the House version). I suspect, however, that this bill will be resurrected for the 2014 session.

However, it’s not the actual content of the “ag-gag” bill that I want to discuss. Rather, I want to look at this bill as a concrete example of a simple difference between Republicans and Democrats. In case you can’t guess, Republicans supported the bill (with a handful of defections) while Democrats opposed it. I followed the debate about the “ag-gag” bill via Twitter (largely based on the excellent Twitter reporting of Mary Beth Schneider of The Indianapolis Star, who is able to tweet at a speed that rivals the texting skills of a teenage girl). It was this tweet that really caught my attention and got me thinking of how this bill fit into the proverbial “big picture”:

Text of the tweet (in case the embedding fails):

2:41pm 26 Apr 2013: Holdman says the bill has always been about protecting business in Indiana from people who secretively take video solely to do harm to biz.

Holdman is Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Northeast Indiana).

Go back and read that tweet again. Do you see why it caught my eye? Essentially, as I read it, Sen. Holdman was saying that it is the responsibility of the Indiana General Assembly to protect businesses from people. Sure, he couches it in terms of people who act “to do harm to biz”. But is that really (a) how people act and (b) why they act? I mean, do people take photos of farms being cruel to animals because they want to hurt the business or because they want people to know how the animals are being treated so that, perhaps, the animals might be treated more humanely? Does a whistleblower take a photo of poor (or even illegal work conditions) in order to harm the business or in order to force corrections and improvements? Or maybe you can turn it around backwards to think about it. Shouldn’t it, for example, be the job of government to protect people from businesses? Shouldn’t we be rewarding whistleblowers for alerting the public to unsafe working conditions?

I just don’t see people acting in a way with a primary focus or intent of doing harm to businesses; rather, I perceive the primary intent to be to inform people of how businesses are acting or to try to get businesses to change how they operate. But a change in operation is different than “harming” a business, isn’t it? If my friend has a poor diet and I try to get him to change his diet so that his kids will have a parent for a longer time, is my principal goal to “harm” my friend by making him eat more of things he doesn’t want to? Think of it in terms of the fertilizer plant that exploded a few weeks ago in Texas; a plant that apparently hadn’t reported having 1300 times the allowable limit of ammonium nitrate, didn’t have standard safety features (like sprinklers), and hadn’t been inspected by OHSA since 1985. Is it the job of government to protect that business from people who might have wanted to improve working conditions or to protect the neighbors from the possible bad results of a business handling dangerous materials?

When I read this tweet, I started thinking more broadly about the distinction between Republicans and Democrats. Let me ask this: If I told you that a legislator suggested that it was the job of government to pass laws to protect businesses from people, would you presume, knowing nothing else, that the speaker was a Republican or a Democrat? And if I told you that a legislator said, instead, that it was the job of government to protect people from businesses, would you presume that the speaker was a Republican or a Democrat? The answer to both hypothetical queries seems pretty easy to me. Republicans are constantly bemoaning “excess regulations” that “hinder business growth” or some other similar concepts, as if the purpose of those regulations was to prevent businesses from succeeding. By contrast, Democrats seek to impose regulations in order, not to restrict business growth, but to protect people from the unchecked activity of businesses.

Would we have things like the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act if it was the job of government to protect businesses from people? Rather, those sorts of laws are designed to restrict businesses in order to protect people. Today, it’s Democrats who want to talk about climate change and how to take steps to mitigate against its possible ramifications on people while Republicans refuse to even believe that it might be real. It’s Republicans who want to build an oil tar pipeline from Canada to Texas (where the oil can then be sold, not in America, but shipped overseas) and Democrats who are concerned about the possible environmental impact, such as damage to aquifers that supply drinking water to people. It’s Republicans who want to continue to allow gun manufacturers to sell their products with limited regulation while Democrats want to restrict the sale of weapons and high capacity magazines and such in order to protect people.

I don’t think that he really intended to do so, but Sen. Holdman quite succinctly summed up the governing philosophy of Republicans and put it in stark contrast to Democrats. One party believes that it is the role of government to protect businesses from people while the other views its responsibility as helping to protect people from businesses. What do you think the proper role of government should be with regard to the relationship of businesses and people?

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