Radical Republicans: GOP Senator opposes hand washing regulations

clean handsThe free market, not government regulation, should compel food service employees wash their hands after using the bathroom.

So says newly-elected U.S. Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC), who explained, “I don’t have any problem with Starbucks if they choose to opt out of this policy as long as they post a sign that says ‘We don’t require our employees to wash their hands after leaving the restroom.'” He argues that a food service establishment with such a policy would “go out of business.”

Maybe not. Many people don’t bother to read signs. (Perhaps in North Carolina they can’t read signs.) In any case, how many people would get sick before the light hand of the free market drove customers away and forced the establishment to close? What Tillis calls “the heavy hand of government” — i.e., health inspectors shutting the place down right now, before a bunch of people get sick — seems like a better option.

Tillis isn’t a moron, even though he often comes across as one. Unlike many Republicans in Congress who say outlandish things, he didn’t go to law school and isn’t a lawyer. (Law requires analytical thinking.) He once described himself to a newspaper as someone who “isn’t wired for college.” He got a job after high school, but eventually returned to school for IT training, then did IT consulting for a major accounting firm. So we’re not talking about an MIT-trained rocket scientist here; his profile more closely resembles that of someone we expect to be an idiot. His moronic comment about not allowing the government to enforce common-sense (and very necessary) handwashing rules creates an opening to discuss several key topics.

1. Republicans are slaves to ideology. Here, we see free-market ideology taken to absurdity. Ideology, not thoughtful analysis, is what drove Tillis to conclude that government should have no role in requiring food service employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom. His theory is you won’t patronize such a business, so the market will solve the problem. He would only require a sign informing you the store doesn’t have a handwashing policy, and let customer preferences do the rest.

Sound stupid? Well, it is stupid, and it won’t work. But we have to take seriously what the kind of thinking this represents, because as we approach the 2016 presidential campaign, we hear some of the potential GOP candidates arguing that childhood vaccinations should be voluntary. Meanwhile, we have a measles outbreak caused by parents choosing quackery over medical science. Tillis wants us to trust people’s common sense (see #3 below), but that doesn’t work with people who don’t have any.

Let’s not overlook the hypocrisy of those people. They’re the same mob who wanted to quarantine the health care workers fighting Ebola in West Africa, despite CDC guidelines and medical science saying it wasn’t necessary. That’s a considerably greater infringement of personal liberty than hand washing regulations, but when these people are frightened by propaganda, they don’t care anyone else’s liberty.

By the way, free markets don’t work very well on their own. I’m no socialist; I prefer market-based capitalism, despite its imperfections, to any other economic system yet devised. But capitalism works a lot better with some judicious intervention. The interference of public health regulation with the functioning of markets is so slight that only stubborn ideologues could oppose it on those grounds. The problem is his laissez-faire approach to public health can literally kill you. (Ever heard of e. coli?) How can a person have such bad judgment? That brings us to our next topic …

2. Higher education serves an essential purpose. It’s very common now to hear conservatives belittle liberal arts education, and in the next breath, criticize students for going into debt for “useless” degrees. Partisans of the right, generally speaking, believe colleges should be trade schools that prepare people for specific jobs, and consider general education a waste of time, because they don’t understand what it’s for.

Someone once told me that college “teaches you how to think.” You won’t remember everything you study, but you acquire a general knowledge of how the world works. The main thing is that you learn how to process and organize information, do something useful with it, analyze and critique ideas, and communicate with others in writing and speech. That’s what learning “how to think” consists of.

You don’t need these skills to assemble pipes or operate a forklift, but you do need them to make business and public policy decisions. Society has a stake in this, because our collective well-being, and the success of our economy, depends on decision makers knowing the difference between real and quack science, and figuring out appropriate responses to viruses, economic collapses, and everything else that determines our survival, prosperity, and quality of life.

I’m not saying welders, electricians, and plumbers aren’t important. We need them, too. But I don’t want a plumber running the CDC, or a welder deciding whether schoolchildren should be vaccinated against measles, polio, and whooping cough. Would you put an electrician in charge of the Federal Reserve? Do you want our foreign policy formulated by a forklift operator? Do you want an IT technician determining public health policy? People should do jobs they’re trained for; Tillis is not a public health expert. He’s merely spewing a rote ideology that doesn’t work in this context.

Rightwing ideologues are wrong about liberal arts education (and many other things). Their foremost argument against it is refuted by employers themselves. In a recent survey, employers said they want liberal arts graduates, because they need workers who can think, solve problems, exercise good judgment, and make sound decisions. You don’t learn that in trade schools.

3. Many things that look great on paper don’t work in real life. Early attempts at human flight come to mind (see photo). This brings us to a basic flaw of libertarian ideology. Freedom is a wonderful concept. We all want to be free, and no one likes being told what to do. But the limitations of libertarian philosophy become painfully apparent when a neighbor’s pit bull rips your child’s face off, or the fertilizer plant down the street blows up and levels the nursing home where your mother lives. You can’t stuff 7 billion people on this little planet, or 300 million people into our country, without having people bump into each other. So you’ve gotta have rules. The trick is finding a reasonable balance between protecting individual freedom and restraining antisocial behavior. Finding this balance requires thinking skills that, frankly, some people don’t have.

The point Tillis wants to make is that “there are certain rules that require common sense, not regulation.” The point he misses is that people don’t always behave sensibly. Expecting food service employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom may be common sense, but given human nature, it won’t happen without health inspectors enforcing it. How many times have you gone into a public restroom and discovered the person using it didn’t flush? How many strangers do you see leave public restrooms without washing their hands? I see it all the time. You’d think people would have more care for their hygiene and even want to use some Hand Sanitizer or anti-bacterial soaps so they know they are as clean as can be, for themselves and others.

Because Tillis didn’t have a liberal arts education, he doesn’t understand the world around him, and doesn’t know how to think critically. He’s fallen into the trap of relying on a blind ideology. Maybe someday we’ll live in a world run by computers without human inputs. But for now, at least, we still need students to study liberal arts subjects and learn how to think. Which brings me, finally, to this …

4. Conservatives are wrong about student debt. Students have more debt now because cash-strapped state legislatures have cut back on public funding of colleges and universities. This has transferred some higher education costs from taxpayers to students, which has led to increased student borrowing. Conservative critics of this borrowing act like that’s a bad thing in itself.

There was a time when government grants, tax credits, and loan guarantees for students didn’t exist. That was also a time when college was considered a luxury, relatively few people had degrees, and our economy was much simpler. Now, a college degree is all but mandatory for most middle-class jobs, and we have a much more knowledge-based economy.

Why should student debt be considered worse than other debt? How many people pay cash for houses or cars? We consider these things to be necessities, and we don’t question borrowing to pay for them. How many businesses don’t need to borrow? Credit is what makes our economy work. So why should we listen to ideologues who knock the idea of borrowing to get the education needed to land a decent job in today’s economy? Most of us need those government programs to get that education.

With colleges forced by declining legislative support to pass more of their costs to students, debt is a necessity for many students if they are to have any chance of getting jobs requiring more than just technical skills, and if we are at all pragmatic, we should look for ways to ease their debt burdens. Recommitting public money to higher education is one way. Creating a more cost-efficient education system is another, although that will require time and innovation. If we close off educational opportunities to young people, they won’t be able to get kinds of jobs that would enable them to get married, buy houses, and raise children. And if that happens, we’ll have to staff our future economy with immigrants.

So it matters when people like Tillis get elected to policy-making positions and then bandy stupid, ill-informed, and unworkable ideas like this. It’s somewhat reminiscent of George W. Bush’s crazy idea of eliminating federal meat inspectors and giving that money to meatpacking companies to hire their own inspectors. Under his administration, our country experienced a record number of tainted food scandals and food recalls. If the voters of North Carolina want Thom Tillis to represent them in the U.S. Senate, that’s their business. If we follow, that will be our fault.

Photo: An early flying machine.


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