Michigan used to be one of the more progressive states. The dominant auto industry meant strong industrialists and their capitalism. It also meant workers with far more votes; and, when labor unions still had power, it mean progressive policies. Some sociologists say that Michigan is where the middle class arose.
But Michigan has fallen on hard times, economically as well as politically. Declining domestic auto production, bankrupt cities, high poverty rates -- and Republican state leadership in the form of Gov. Rick Snyder, who has become villain of the month for the Flint River pollution and lead poisoning of the citizens of Flint.
Lead PoisoningOver 8,000 children under the age of 6 now have the potential for developing lifelong brain damage from the lead in their drinking water -- all to save, we now learn, a mere $1 million by diverting river water through old pipes that contained lead, which leached out into the drinking water. This is the result of inept oversight from all concerned. One environment official has resigned, and there have been calls for the governor to resign, as it's learned that his office knew of the risk months ago -- and didn't act.
Motorcycle HelmetsHere's another example, reported by Madeline Kennedy, of how the Republicans' mania for shrinking government controls hurts people. Three years ago Michigan repealed its 35 year old mandatory motorcycle helmet law. Since then, deaths and head injuries at the scene of crashes have more than quadrupled, while deaths later in hospitals have tripled. The American Journal of Surgery reports that head injuries increased overall and that the injuries are more severe.
According to Dr. Carlos Rodriguez, lead author of the study reported in AJS, their research compared a period in 2011, before the law was repealed, with the same months in years 2012, 2013, and 2014 after it was repealed.
They found that, among riders who died at a crash scene, the proportion not wearing helmets rose from 14% before the law change to 68% afterward. Riders also drank more alcohol, had more severe injuries in general, and life-threatening head injuries in particular. Hospital stays were longer, requiring more intensive care, and costing more.
Dr. Ben Zarzaur, a surgeon who studies motorcycle helmet laws, said that riders may choose not to wear a helmet because they say it is less restricting and they may claim to see or hear better without one. It's understanding that the sense of freedom in riding without a helmut may be desirable -- especially to those who choose motorcycles over cars.
But Dr. Zarzaur points out that the study shows the cost of injuries and deaths from motorcycle crashes is extremely high, and taxpayers and other insurance payers often bear this cost. "So, choosing not to wear a helmet has consequences for many more people than just to the person who decided not to wear the helmet.”
Just how much should the government control out lives? That raises philosophical and practical questions that must be decided politically when it comes to making laws. I think, at least, when the rights and safety of others are at stake, more government regulation is better than less. But where is the limit?
In both the Flint River contamination and the motorcycle helmut law, there is an argument that third party costs to the public are involved. Some might agree with water quality control, arguing that the ordinary citizen has no choice in its water supply and must be protected by government regulations; and, at the same time, the same person might reject helmut laws saying this is too much regulation of individual personal choices about risk, and that it does not impact others except very indirectly in small increased costs to the general public.
I tend to argue against that latter part and think we do need some regulation of bad behavior that impacts our society overall. But there must be limits, and where to draw the line is the question. Obesity mostly affects the individual; but it does also affect the family directly in direct costs and increased health problems and early deaths. It also affects our culture generally in myriad ways -- even including things like increased jet fuel costs for airlines to carry heavier people. New York Mayor Bloomberg tried putting a limit on the size of sugary sodas that could be sold in his city. It caused a big outcry and was eventually repealed.
So what do we want the government to regulate and how much? These two Michigan causes offer two ends of a spectrum; where would you draw the line? We have an election coming up. It's a good question to ask the candidates.