This Labor Day, I’ll be thinking about my family.
My great grandfather, an immigrant from eastern Europe who crossed the Atlantic to work in a western Pennsylvania steel mill, died in that mill in 1929 when a piece of industrial equipment came crashing down on him.
His daughter – my grandmother – was less than a year old.
How many millions of families have suffered similar tragedies? The deadly nature of work in the “Steel Valley” is well documented. Local histories and literary classics such as Blood on the Forge and Out of This Furnace testify to this bloody past.
Clearly, we’ve come a long way since 1929, most significantly with the formation of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) in 1971.
Nevertheless, tragic workplace deaths occur in America almost every day. Scroll through OSHA’s 2014 document recording “FY14 Fatalities and Catastrophes to Date” (PDF), and you’ll begin to get a sense of the lives lost each day that may have been prevented.
As a general rule, cost-benefit analyses are suspect.
Such analyses – which federal agencies perform to weigh the health and safety “benefits” of regulations (benefits like lower infant mortality rates and reliably safe and clean drinking water) against the “cost” of lost profits to Corporate America – result in a distorted model of a regulation’s impact. Invariably, the distortion creates a bias that exaggerates the regulation’s “cost,” largely because cost (measured in dollars and cents) is more easily quantified than benefits.
So one might think it’s a good thing that economists at the FDA have started factoring in pleasure – or, more specifically, its loss – when weighing the costs and benefits of new regulations. And one might think that a regulation that is expected to result in lower infant mortality rates, fewer cancer diagnoses, and longer, healthier lives for the American public to be a winner in terms of “pleasure,” right?
Unfortunately, one would be wrong.
Shockingly, the FDA’s cost-benefit analysis for a new tobacco regulation resulted in the rule’s projected health and safety benefits – fewer instances of heart and lung disease and fewer early deaths – being reduced by 70 percent due to the “loss in pleasure” smokers endure when trying to break their addiction.
As an ex-smoker myself (tobacco-free since 2008), I am well aware that the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal certainly constitute a “loss in pleasure.” But the notion that a smoker’s physical discomfort for a relatively brief period of time somehow trumps by 70 percent the health benefits of quitting (not to mention the increase in one’s disposable income and the gradual restoration of one’s senses of taste and smell) is utterly outrageous.
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Congress passed – unanimously in the Senate and without debate – and President Obama will sign, H.R. 2019, the “Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act” (named after a 10-year old child who died last year of brain cancer). If the legislation actually did what it touts – to finance pediatric research – it would be a noble bill for a noble cause.
But it is a fig-leaf bill. Its real purpose is to begin dismantling the presidential public financing system, and is very unlikely to produce any revenues for pediatric research.
The bill was originally introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by U.S. Rep. Gregg Harper (R-Miss.), a longtime opponent of campaign finance reform. After Harper was unable to persuade Congress to approve earlier legislation that would have entirely defunded the public financing program, Harper re-worked the bill into what it is known now.
The legislation transfers public funds used to pay for the nominating conventions into the general treasury, then states that those funds may be used for pediatric research, if Congress ever decides to appropriate the funds for that purpose.
This same Congress slashed National Institute of Health (NIH) funding by $1.55 billion, which finances the pediatric research program, in the appropriations bills, and then placed caps on any further spending by NIH. The Kids First Research Act, if ever implemented, would transfer from the presidential public financing system to pediatric research, a pittance of what Congress slashed from the research budget. And even that pittance is not likely to happen. Given current spending caps on governmental agencies, Congress also would have to pass legislation lifting the spending ceiling for the National Institutes of Health to carry through with this appropriation, something that this Congress is very unlikely to do.