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More public interest needed for government regulations

in a technologically complex society, the government must sometimes intervene to protect the public.

Melvin B. Miller | 4/11/2013, noon

Americans are staunchly independent. That is a quality inherited from their ancestors who had to be rugged individuals to survive on the frontier. There is a cultural disdain against restricting rules and regulations. However, in a technologically complex society, the government must sometimes intervene to protect the public.

It is expected that industries will resist the imposition of regulations and will develop strategies to circumvent the rules once they are established. Lobbyists representing various industries will also be engaged to assure that state and federal legislators do not support regulations they view as oppressive.

Those battles rarely attract the attention of the general public until a problem gets serious journalistic attention. Boston has had two such incidents recently. The first occurred when an outbreak of fungal meningitis occurred among customers of a local compounding pharmacy. The other was a Boston Globe exposé of the failure of the hackney regulations to protect the public and provide reasonable employment standards for cab drivers.

With so many major battles waging in Washington between Democrats and Republicans, it almost seems unreasonable to expect citizens to be attentive to those issues involving the scope of industrial and commercial regulations. In fact, conservatives generally oppose any restrictions and they therefore hope that the public will be indifferent. Conservatives believe that the invisible mechanism of the free market will resolve commercial problem without interference by government.

When people first heard about the horrible deaths and physical impairment of those using contaminated medications, it was thought to be the result of a failure of the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, compounding pharmacies that prepare small amounts of specialized drugs are regulated by the states. There is an ongoing battle between the FDA and the states about when industrial-scale compounding should be subject to their oversight.

Apparently, neither the FDA nor the state authorities had jurisdiction over all of the operations of the New England Compounding Center, which is now accused of alleged irregularities. However, that is not the problem of Boston’s taxi industry. The rules and regulations are administered by the hackney unit of the Boston Police Department. The state Legislature establishes most of the regulations.

The law requires each cab to have only $20,000 in insurance, the state minimum for bodily injury. When one considers that unlike a personal car, a cab is on the road 24 hours a day, that is an absurdly low amount. According to the Globe report, New York and Los Angeles require $100,000, Chicago has a $350,000 minimum and Dallas sets a $500,000 minimum.

In addition to that, Massachusetts permits cab owners to establish a self insurance fund. This provides an opportunity for owners to harass claimants until they are forced to settle for much less than the claim is worth.

According to the Globe report, major cab owners also have a predatory attitude toward their drivers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that Boston cab drivers earn about $27,000 per year. Even so, the state permits cab owners to treat them as independent contractors rather than employees. Drivers lease a cab for about $106 for a 12-hour shift. There are also other costs for gas and sometimes a “tip” to the dispatcher to be sure to get a cab for a busy shift. And drivers get no health insurance or paid vacation.

Many cab drivers are people of color from the U.S., Africa and the Caribbean. The black community should be interested in establishing a better hackney system to strengthen families. And citizens should be more attentive to whether regulatory agencies actually provide needed protections of the public.

Voters have turned out en masse for elections. The next step is to be as concerned about the development of public policy regulations, despite a general antipathy to government regulation.