Sunday, December 11, 2011

Of pizza and the privatisation of public policy

Pizza has been declared a vegetable.

The United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) proposed food standards were undermined by a congressional spending bill that enabled pizza to be counted as a vegetable. The bill was the result of lobbying by the frozen food industry to ensure that pizza and chips would still be available for school lunches.

In addition the bill will:
  • Block the Agriculture Department from limiting starchy vegetables, including corn and peas, to two servings a week. The rule was intended to cut down on french fries, which many schools serve daily.
  • Allow USDA to count two tablespoons of tomato paste as a vegetable - which allows pizza to be counted as a serve of vegetables. Federally subsidized lunches must have a certain number of vegetables to be served.
The intervention and lobbying by the fast-food industry to undermine the science-based public policy making of the USDA is yet another example of the increasing trend to privatise public policy making.

Interest groups and lobbyists have disproportionate sway over lawmaking, and in some cases have been able to  get lawmakers to completely abrogate their responsibility to legislate in areas of public policy. So much so that areas that were once the purview of government are now almost purely regulated and enforced by private interests.

This is particularly the case in intellectual property (IP) policy, where industry lobby groups have monopolised the public debate so that they virtually write the legislation for lawmakers to pass.

The recent "Stop Online Piracy" (SOPA) bill is one such example. The bill, if made into law, would give content publishers unprecedented powers to censor and control the publication of online content - making the content  publishers ultimate arbiters of what can be published on the internet. Through laws such as these, Governments have bestowed arbitrary quasi-judicial powers upon powerful interests, removing requirements for due process, natural justice or evidentiary rules - thus shirking their responsibilities to legislate public policy or protect the public interest.

The powers that the bill confers have been likened to the powers that the Chinese government executes over internet content through the "Great Firewall" albeit that the Western version is executed by private, rather than government interests. However, like the Chinese Firewall, the public can not dismantle this policy by excercising their democratic powers - the interests of this private plutocracy are just as dictatorial and totalitatarian as the Chinese Government.

In Australia too, the government has abrogated its responsibility to the public on IP policy by signing up to secretly negotiated "free-trade" treaties such as the Trans-pacific partnership.  The government is also refusing to take a leadership role in regulating IP infringement on the internet - preferring to hand that process over to vested interests in the ISP and content publishing industries rather than legislating in such a way that provides a balance between industry interests and the public interest.

The pervasiveness of the ideology that advocates that public policy is best executed by private interests relegates lawmaking to mere administration and democratic power to tinkering around the edges of issues. 

This abrogation of public policy making by lawmakers has not only had a chilling effect on the rights and freedoms of people, but it has also had serious effects on the world economy (global financial crisis), environment (climate change) and public health and wellbeing (health policy). However, lawmakers are satisfied to leave these important issues up to private interests instead of providing political leadership in the public interest and when a government does try to allow its citizenry to have a say, it is loudly shouted down and decried by those powerful interests to which an appeal to democracy would disadvantage the most.

Various governments have handed over some of the most important areas of public policy to powerful private interests to varying degrees. The economy, the environment, public health and culture have all been privatised to varying extents.

The virtual privatisation of these areas of public policy has collectively given society the global financial crisis by handing the economy to bankers, global warming by acquiescing to industrialist interests, a global obesity epidemic by pandering to the fast-food industry, lack of access to drugs in developing countries by granting broad patents to pharmaceutical companies and limitations on free speech and  human creativity by the over-regulation of IP.

And as we complain about our politicians tinkering around the edges of what was democracy, at least we can drown ourselves in the vacuity of culture that is left to us by the plutocrats and reach for another slice of pizza.

Well, at least it's a vegetable.