Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Obama administration now runs companies?

It was only a matter of time.

The government used taxpayer money to bail out failing companies, and now they are demanding their due - control over key decisions at those companies. Where does it stop? For now, it is just companies which accepted taxpayer bailout money. But now that the Fed owns a major share in GM and Chrysler (and many financial institutions), are they going to start passing laws to keep those companies afloat? Perhaps a law might pass that all federal agencies can only buy vehicles from those companies. We will see, but as a small business owner, I am rather nervous.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

HR 875 - Food Safety Administration Bill

This, the THE FOOD SAFETY MODERNIZATION ACT OF 2009, is a prime example of a bill in which congress is trying to "do something" without thinking through all of the ramifications (unless Big Agriculture knows exactly what would happen if this bill passes). It is much like a "lead safety for children" bill for food (I know of a local consignment sale which recently spent a lot of money testing all products for lead) - the general idea is necessary for public safety, but it is likely to have an enormous impact on small businesses and entrepreneurs (and possibly directly on families!), and, as a result, reduce competition and force families to spend more money.

I have read the bill (at http://www.thomas.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d111:h.r.00875: or go to www.thomas.gov and look up HR 875). Much of what is included seems warranted considering the problems that have been occurring with food in the last year or so. HOWEVER, I do see some major problems with the bill as written, some of which are also cited in the original message below.

First of all, I believe that it is almost certain that if this bill were to be passed that it would increase the cost of food. This new government agency would have a lot of additional rules (many of which are already outlined in the bill), including going to foreign countries and inspecting their plants. This could also potentially cause some political/trade issues.

A larger issue is that this bill does not distinguish based on the size of a food establishment or intent to profit. Anywhere which processes, grows, transports, hold or sells food (except restaurants, interestingly enough) is subject to these new guidelines, registration, and inspections. The local farm stand where you buy fresh vegetables during the summer would be classified as a "Category 3 Food Establishment." So would your backyard garden, if you traded produce with your neighbors (BTW, bartering is considered income for each of you by the fed) or even gave it away. Such farms and gardens would be required to register yearly, keep copious records that all food safety protocols were being followed, and be subject to random monthly inspections (Citation: Sec. 205 b"(3) CATEGORY 3 FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS- A category 3 food establishment shall-- (A) have ongoing verification that its processes are controlled; and (B) be randomly inspected at least monthly).

If you put in a bulk order for food with friends and have the food shipped to your house where you keep it until your friends pick it up, your house would be classified as a "Category 5 Food Establishment" and would therefore be required to register yearly, keep records that food safety protocols were being followed, and be subject to random annual inspections (citation: sec. 205 b "(5) CATEGORY 5 FOOD ESTABLISHMENTS- A category 5 food establishment shall-- (A) have ongoing verification that its processes are controlled; and (B) be randomly inspected at least annually"). Both of the above would make it difficult to engage in many of the money-saving and health-supporting behaviors that so many of us are beginning to turn to in this down economy.

I am not certain if this bill would effect bake sale fundraisers, but it could. It seems that Boy and Girl Scout troops (popcorn and cookies, respectively) and school food-based fundraisers, as well as ALL PARTICIPANTS, would be effected, since they sell (i.e., transport and store) food items. It appears that, as this bill is currently written, every participant in a food fund-raiser who delivers the food or stores some at their house would have to register and be regulated by the new Food Safety Administration.

Additionally, small farmers would also be effected by the bill, and many of them could go out of business since it is already so difficult to profit and there are already so many regulations.

Finally, from what I understand about the domestic food contamination outbreaks in the past year or so, they have been the result of under-enforcement of current regulations. Why create another agency and additional regulations when we simply need a better way to enforce existing regulations? Perhaps it would be better to separate regulation of food from regulation of drugs and medical devices, as this bill would do, but I do not see a need to expand the regulations and inspections to include backyard gardens and friendly co-ops.

What to do?

I intend to contact my representative and the members of the House Committees of 'Energy and Commerce' and 'Agriculture' to ask them to oppose HR 875. At the VERY least, the bill needs to have an exclusion for neighbors trading, local produce stands, small local farmers, community fund-raisers, etc. Perhaps the exclusion could make registration for small farms, backyard gardens, individual bake sales, etc. up to a certain sales volume optional. If they did not register and follow protocols, they would have to prominently display a notice that "This food is not regulated under the Food Safety Administration. Reasonable safe handling practices have been followed, but this food and this vendor have not been officially inspected or tested by the FSA and may be contaminated."

The intent of this bill is good, but it needs more thought in the realm of long-term effects on the average consumer beyond just "protecting the public."

Welcome & Why 4-D politics?

I have spent a long time watching our government and listening to political arguments (oops, sorry, discussions :) ). It often seems that both sides are just trying to win, instead of genuinely find the best solution for most people. This is complicated by the fact that in US politics they are sides, which I think limits the ideas proponents of those sides are willing to entertain.

Thanks to some special people in my life, I have had the opportunity to become familiar with some different personality type systems (DiSC and Myers-Briggs), values systems (the Stanford VALS - Values and Lifestyle Survey), and thinking styles (Hermann Brain Dominance Instrument - HBDI). In each of these "typing" systems, there are 4 main styles or qualities (yes, even Myers-Briggs is an expansion/interaction of 4 main components). Most people tend to prefer some, or one, of these styles over the others, and that is where differences in opinion arise. I believe that is is possible to come to compromises with which everyone can be content IF we look at each problem from each section of a system.

In theory, the US Consitution set our government up in such a way that this would happen naturally. However, some problems have come up:

1) our political system has become so polarized that only 2 sides of any issue are usually proposed. Life is not two-dimensional, but our political system has become so. Thus, we miss many of the best solutions.

2) Because of the polarized political system, people are afraid to vote for third parties because "the other guy" (with whom the voter disagrees most) might win.

3) Only certain types of people tend to get into politics at all, so we are already lacking in government the complete spectrum of personalities, values, and thinking styles present in the general population.

4) Only certain types of people tend to work in government agencies. In general, burocrats are strict rule-followers, which is important. It does not allow for any flexibility in upholding the intent of laws, though, only following the letter of the law.

So, that is the general approach I intend to take in discussing ideas and issues in these posts.