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Dragging Us Off the Plane

The Berkshire Eagle, April 15, 2014

The 2017 Emmy Awards will not be announced until September, but the leading contender in the "breaking news" category is already pretty obvious: the passengers who videoed Dr. David Dao being dragged from United flight 3411.

Nearly two weeks after the event, Americans are still upset about those shocking images, and the injured doctor's many fans are cheering as he prepares to sue the airline. Even if he wins big, however, the underlying problem is only going to get worse. That problem, to be blunt, is our new government. It seems determined to give businesses more freedom than ever to mistreat us.

Even before taking office, our new president vowed to abolish all sorts of business regulations that, he insisted, impede economic growth. Yet many such rules also protect consumers, and — as United Airlines learned the hard way — abusing consumers is not a great marketing strategy. That fact, of course, has not stopped companies from lobbying hard to change regulations they find... inconvenient.

Take the airline industry. Decades ago it pushed successfully for almost complete freedom to set routes and ticket prices. Fares have fallen, but competition on most routes has shriveled, many cities have lost airline service, and the flying experience has become increasingly unpleasant.

Last year the industry spent $30 million on lobbyists and political donations to fight a planeload of environmental, anti-trust and other regulations. After years of such headwinds, the Obama administration last year was able to impose a tougher set of passenger rights, such as refunds of baggage charges if a suitcase goes astray. The Trump administration is moving to suspend those rights.

The administration has already made it easier for businesses to pollute air and water, squeeze student loan borrowers, pay men and women unequally for the same work and sell our browsing histories to the highest bidder. The president failed in his first attempt to pass a health coverage bill with fewer protections for policy holders, but he is still trying.

Also targeted are a host of pro-consumer regulations imposed as a result of the financial crisis. The Trump administration has delayed the so-called "fiduciary rule," an Obama-era requirement that financial advisers act in their clients' best interests and not their own. The Trump team has announced its intention to hobble the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Elizabeth Warren-inspired watchdog that shields Americans from all sorts of unsavory practices. And Dodd-Frank, the law aimed at curbing the Wall Street excesses that caused the financial crisis in the first place, is scheduled for gutting.

With a Republican majority in Congress, the White House should have little trouble imposing its anti-consumer agenda. Indeed, many rule changes can be accomplished with the wiggle of a presidential pen. If such moves are challenged in court, the deciding vote could well come from the president's new Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch. He has a long record of siding with business.

Of course, we all support business. The free-enterprise system helped make America an economic powerhouse. But that happened largely after we began regulating the excesses of capitalism in the early 20th century. The issue is not whether the free market should be unfettered, but whether particular fetters make sense. Sure, regulation can curb economic growth, but lack of regulation can harm both the economy and the well-being of society. The trick is to find the right balance.

That is precisely why we should be worried. The president has placed regulatory opponents and even industry lobbyists at the head of major agencies. His cabinet is stocked with enemies of the very departments they run, like Tom Price at Health and Human Services, Scott Pruitt at Environmental Protection, Betsy DeVos at Education, Ben Carson at Housing.

These capitalist crusaders see their job as restoring some long-lost balance between businesses and consumers. The former, they feel, have been unfairly harmed by government meddling, and the latter have it too easy. As a consumer who doesn't like my air and water poisoned, my wife unfairly paid, my browsing history sold to marketers and my investment firms scamming me, I beg to differ.

So, I suspect, would Dr. Dao, once he recovers from his injuries. And so would just about anybody who saw those videos of what can happen to a mere individual in the new, more pro-business America. It is time for consumers to get organized, push back — and do some lobbying of our own.