Dear President Obama:
Underneath many of our country’s economic problems is the thirty-year collapse of consumer protection—both of the regulatory kind and of the self-help kind known as proper access to justice.
Last month major consumer groups sent you a letter proposing action to rein in exploitation of consumers as debtors, as buyers of oil, gas and electricity, as patients needing health insurance and as eaters wanting safe goods.
Under the Bush regime, the words “consumer protection” were rarely uttered and the Bush administration almost never initiated any pro-consumer efforts, even with massive evidence before it, such as predatory lending and credit card abuses.
You need to recognize and elevate the GDP significance of fair consumer policies along with their moral and just attributes at a time of worsening recession.
I suggest you focus on the state of the poorest consumers in the urban and rural ghettos. As you know from your days with the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) and as a community organizer in Chicago, the consumers in these areas are the most gouged and least protected. That the “poor pay more” has been extensively documented by civic, official and academic studies, and numerous local newspaper and television news reports.
Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the Executive branch have paid adequate attention to the tens of millions of people who lose at least 25 percent of their consumer dollars to multiple frauds and shoddy merchandise. You should establish special task forces in the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission on their plight and on the many proven but unused remedies to assure a fair marketplace with effective enforcement and grievance procedures.
Working with and galvanizing local and state agencies to enlarge their capacity and staff—with stimulus monies—can produce a triple-header—making the federal effort more effective, providing valuable jobs and freeing up billions of consumer dollars from the financial sink-hole of commercial crimes.
It requires the visibility and eloquence of your personal leadership to launch this long-overdue defense of poor people.
A second area of action is simply to update major areas of regulatory health and safety that have been frozen for thirty years. These include modernizing standards for auto and tire safety, food safety, aviation and railroad safety and occupational health and trauma protection.
New knowledge, new marketing forays, and new technologies have accumulated during this period without application. It is the obsolescence of so many safety standards hailing from the fifties, sixties and seventies that permits the tricky, corporate advertising claims that products “exceed federal safety standards.”
Note for example that the SEC has never come close to regulating the recent explosion of myriad collateralized debt obligations (CDOs). The massive speculation in this area is destabilizing the national and world economies.
Third, you need to articulate and provide a high profile to what western Europeans have long called “social consumerism.” Citizens are consumers of government services for which they pay as taxpayers. In return they are entitled to prompt, accurate and courteous responses to their inquiries and to their perceived needs as embraced by the authorizing statutes.
To begin with, Americans need to be able to get through to their government agencies and departments. Being put on hold interminably with automated messages to nowhere, not receiving replies of any kind to their letters, and generally getting the brush-off even with the deadlines explicated in the Freedom of Information Act have been a bi-partisan failure.
However, under the Bush regime, not answering serious letters from dedicated individuals and groups on time-sensitive matters of policy and action—as with the Iraq war and occupation—became standard operating procedure—starting with President Bush himself.
This stonewalling has turned people off so much that they do not even bother to “ask their government” for assistance and that includes an astonishingly unresponsive Congress (other than for ministerial requests such as locating lost VA or social security checks.)
As you shape the Obama White House, bear in mind that the “change you can believe in” is one of kind, not just degree.