In 1906, after shocking disclosures of unsanitary conditions at meat packing plants, as well as the use of poisonous preservatives in foods and dangerous narcotics in medicines, Republican President Theodore Roosevelt signed two pieces of landmark legislation – on the same day.
The Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act were part of an historic regulatory wave in the United States. The force behind the movement was Roosevelt, who believed that big business was important to the American economy, but that Americans needed to be protected when business went too far for profits.
Are we about to be hit with another, very different wave?
This week, between tweeting about Taiwan and local union leaders, President-elect Donald Trump did some things that could be far more consequential for Americans the next four years.
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On Wednesday, he chose Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, who has aligned himself with top fossil fuel producers, has gone to court to roll back EPA regulations that are designed to protect Americans from industrial pollution.
On Thursday, Trump picked Carl’s Jr and Hardee’s CEO Andrew F. Puzder to be his secretary of labor. Puzder, who could oversee the department that investigates worker safety and pay issues, isn’t a particularly big fan of workers. He’s a staunch opponent of minimum wage increases and expanded eligibility for overtime pay, and he told Business Insider this year that he likes automation because machines “never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall or an age, sex or race discrimination case.”
The EPA and labor picks follow a pattern for Trump, whose cabinet choices are mostly wealthy and, not surprisingly, very vocal in their opposition to Obama administration laws and policies. They also share a common belief: What’s good for business is good for Americans.
Specifically, that means lower taxes for corporations and less intrusion from regulators. It’s not a new philosophy, of course; Republicans have long believed businesses should be given every opportunity to prosper, so that their prosperity can trickle down to workers.
With taxes, that’s proven not to be true. Most economists agree, and history shows, that the economy doesn’t grow when corporations get their taxes cut. But far more dangerous is the notion that Americans don’t need government regulators, that businesses can do a fine job policing themselves.
The reality is that businesses, like people, tend to act in their own interest. They cut corners to save a dime. They look at what can go right instead of wrong. Or sometimes, they don’t really care about the latter.
History is dotted with the problems that follow, not only in the years preceding 1906, but all the way to the financial crash of 2008. Roosevelt was right about big business being important to the economy – yet something that needs watching.
History also shows that we don’t learn those lessons very well, as periods of stricter regulation are often followed by business-friendly presidents. That’s what America is about to experience, perhaps more than any time in the past century. If Donald Trump’s cabinet choices show us anything, it’s that while he claims to be the champion of average Americans, the next four years are about to be really good for their bosses.