In the early and mid-20th century, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio was one of the most polluted waterways in the United States. Full of oil and other industrial toxins, it caught fire multiple times—thirteen times in 1968 alone. Over a period of many decades,the numerous blazes resulted in millions of dollars of damage and claimed five lives. The final fire of 1969 provided the environmentalist movement with the public outrage it needed to convince Congress to pass the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) of 1970.
Federal laws like NEPA, as well as state-level regulations and rules, are among the ways in which we, the people, ensure that there is democratic oversight in the economy and that we are protected from the harms associated with the unchecked pursuit of profits by capitalists. Environmental regulations prohibit companies from disposing of industrial waste in irresponsible ways; they serve to protect the health of communities, preserve delicate habitats, and avoid ecological catastrophes. Similarly, workplace safety laws prohibit companies from treating their employees as expendable, and thus exposing them to unnecessary dangers.
These regulations are necessary and important because business decisions are guided by the profit motive, and it is often cheaper (more cost-effective) for businesses to act in irresponsible ways. Regulations impose fines and other sanctions in order to make it costly for capitalists to act recklessly.
But protections like these are currently in jeopardy.
Wealthy industrialists are staging a dark-money oligarchic coup that includes dismantling our regulatory protections. One of the main front organizations for this effort in our state is AFP-Iowa, a branch of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), which is funded by the billionaires, David and Charles Koch, of Koch Industries. As Rolling Stone has reported, their company is one of the worst corporate polluters in the country. The Koch brothers thus have a long-standing and well-reported economic interest in dismantling environmental protection legislation and other forms of regulation.
In 2014, the Des Moines Register reported that AFP “isn’t focusing on just an election cycle or two. Its organizers openly say they’re digging in to circumvent traditional political outlets and change the landscape of politics here for a generation.” Unfortunately, it’s working, and ordinary people need to push back.
AFP-Iowa’s strategy is to engage in a deceptive marketing campaign. They convince well-meaning Iowans that they should support the AFP legislative agenda, and they then point to this public support when lobbying lawmakers. Like any good deception, they bait people with a plausible concern. For example, they claim that “overreaching regulations [hinder] small businesses and startups.” They further argue that licensure and education requirements, which are placed on certain professions,impose costs on low- and middle-income earners. The only solution they propose is stripping away the consumer protections and regulations that result in such costs. They conveniently ignore an obvious solution: socially subsidizing the cost of education and training for low-income professions or allowing for deferred payment of these costs. Such strategies would preserve the social benefits of licensure while solving the problem of burdensome entry costs. But that doesn’t interest AFP, whichserves to advance the interests of capitalists—and particularly extremely wealthy capitalists such as the Koch clan.
How do we solve Iowa’s Koch problem?
Democratic socialists believe that economic activity should be aimed at making ordinary people’s lives better, and legislation should serve to protect us from the unfettered pursuit of profit. We need to demand that our elected officials keep the interests or ordinary people in mind. The government does not exist to help an elite class of millionaires and billionaires further line their pockets.
The Koch clan is well-funded. We can’t strip away their funding, but we can thwart their efforts to deceive well-meaning Iowans. When you have political discussions with friends and family members about regulation, explain how they protect ordinary people from reckless profiteering. And give real alternatives. If people are concerned about burdensome entry costs, convince them that the right approach is to find a solution to that problem without blowing up the system of protections we’ve worked hard to develop. Take these arguments to your senators and representatives as well. Demand that they support genuine reforms, which contribute to the advancement of the common good. Insist that they retain regulations that protect our workers, our children, our communities, and our environment.
Update (02/23/17): The Iowa City Press-Citizen reports that Drew Klein, the Iowa director of Americans for Prosperity, literally stood over the shoulder of Gov. Branstad as he signed into law the bill that gutted collective bargaining rights for public employees.