As the presidential campaign season gets underway, it reminds us how much we loath the politics of fear mongering. Half-truths and half-baked policy proposals have become staples of modern campaigns. You betcha!
Until recently, there was a difference between campaigning and governing. Governments are supposed to base their decisions on hard facts and real science. In today’s hyperpoliticized culture, though, the regulatory process can also get hijacked by special-interest groups armed with “narratives” that are simple, emotional and deeply misleading.
California, which is widely known for its progressive politics, should shun governing by scare tactics in defining today’s progressive vision for regulation. As Vice President Al Gore did with the National Partnership for Reinventing Government, progressives should grab the pragmatic view that agencies get smart on an issue, develop targeted regulations and use their authority to solve real problems.
California voters back this vision. They recently voted against requiring warnings on genetically modified foods as unwise regulation. The Obama administration has since concluded the fears of GM products are unwarranted. In April, the U.S. trade representative chastised European regulators for allowing “opt-outs” of U.S. imports of GM products as “ignore(ing) science-based safety and environmental determinations.”
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Chalk one up for California’s progressive governing.
On the other side of the ledger is California’s decision last month to add bisphenol A, or BPA, to the list of toxicants under Proposition 65. BPA has been used to coat the inside of bottles and cans since the 1960s to keep harmful germs from growing inside them.
Here, world regulators are in agreement: BPA is safe when used as regulated. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, European Food Safety Authority, Health Canada and the World Health Organization have found that people excrete any BPA molecules that migrate into food from the cans. BPA does not stay in the body and cause harm.
Despite this global consensus, a California committee claimed that BPA could cause reproductive harms and should come with warnings. FDA’s chief science officer, Dr. Luciana Borio, took the unusual step of urging California not to do so. Borio said that the FDA released in December “an extensive, rigorous and systematic four-year assessment” of BPA that concluded that science does “not support BPA as a reproductive toxicant.”
Warnings of false risks, whether about GMOs, BPA or other products, can be as harmful as failing to warn of actual risks. It is not better to be safe than sorry. The purpose of requiring warnings is to help people make smart choices. If products contain warnings of risks that are not real, people may make decisions against their best interests.
Why scare people into avoiding products that provide important benefits? For example, if companies forgo BPA, they may have to sell products with higher health risks or use chemicals that are not proven, less well-known or more costly.
False warnings also harm the credibility of all regulations. We saw what happened last year with the measles outbreak in California when people refused to follow regulations based on sound science that children be immunized from certain diseases.
It also was not too long ago that reproductive rights groups rightly called foul when the FDA, under pressure from conservative activists, held up Plan B over-the-counter pills despite science that it was safe and effective. As technology advancements continue to push against political and moral boundaries, we need agencies to govern based on science, not politics.
Progressives should support smart, targeted regulations that provide protections while facilitating the economy. When scientific fact loses to political expediency, particularly when it comes to food safety, it is the most vulnerable people among us who will be put at risk.
Phil Goldberg is a senior fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute and partner at Shook, Hardy & Bacon.