Editorial cartoon (7/12/2017)

Big business in America repeats it like it's part of the Ten Commandments handed down in stone from Mount Sinai: lower taxes and fewer regulations.

That's the answer to everything, according to organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the millionaire plutocrats or, closer to home, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce. Tax us less and get the heck out of the way and everything will be just fine.

Corporate America and its political handmaidens insist that the "free market" is what makes our country great. Just trust the good old capitalist system to do what's right. Except, of course, when that system needs to be saved from itself.

Truth is, corporate America can't be trusted. Our history is filled with examples of how greed and the lust for power got in the way of doing what's right, dating from all the way back to the days of the robber barons and their oppressive trusts to as recently as the financial fraud committed by the nation's big banks that nearly brought down our economy. What's worse is that millions of innocent Americans always wind up the losers, while the corporate leaders responsible for the debacles walk away.

And it isn't just financial malfeasance. It took journalistic muckrakers to expose the incredible health hazards in the food and meat industries. It took labor unions to shine a light on unsafe working conditions and the propensity of corporate America to cut corners that led to hundreds of workers' deaths. It took environmentalists to uncover the poisoning of our watersheds by conglomerates like the Olin Corporation and a careless fossil-fuel industry led by the Koch brothers.

An alarmed electorate periodically elects politicians who write new laws to establish standards for Americans' health and safety and enact protections for consumers from the misdeeds of an unencumbered "free market."

But the political pendulum also periodically swings the other way. Politicians who believe the propaganda that regulations are hurting business get elected and open doors that almost always lead to disaster. We're in one of those periods right now. Donald Trump signed an executive order several weeks ago proclaiming that for each new regulation enacted, two have to be ended. It was met with shouts of joy from the business community, but this mindless broadside against common-sense regulatory standards is incredibly dangerous.

We got a firsthand look at what that kind of thinking can cause just a few weeks ago in London, where a horrific fire broke out in a 40-year-old public housing high-rise that claimed the lives of at least 80 people.

Britain, too, has been on an anti-regulation crusade. Its lax regulations allowed two products to be used in the construction of Grenfell Tower that are believed to have caused the fire to rapidly spread throughout the building. Those products couldn't have been used here in America because of our current regulations. Ironically, though, the products were made by U.S. companies.

Whirlpool built the refrigerator that is believed to have been the source of the fire. It was made with a plastic back that Britain allows. The paneling, manufactured by Arconic (formerly known as Alcoa), is banned from high rises in the U.S. because of its combustibility. U.S. regulations require the refrigerators to have metal backs. 

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Britain's anti-regulation mentality wouldn't even require that high rises constructed before 2007 be retrofitted with sprinkler systems like those in the U.S.

Now the British government is requiring that for every new regulation, three have to be ended, a policy even more outrageous than Trump's.

The problem with that kind of anti-regulation mentality is that it can lead to the elimination of safety rules that cover everything from high-rise construction standards to drug and water safety, from automobiles to toys.

Yet supporters of deregulation still contend that the rules harm businesses. What deregulation does do, however, is harm innocent people, all in the name of an endless appetite for more profits.  

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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Dave is editor emeritus of The Capital Times.