Libertarian capitalism killed my best friends.
Libertarian capitalism also killed my father and the family of one of my coworkers.
Let me explain: there are two ways a nation can allow products to come into the marketplace: the libertarian, unregulated “American way” and the regulated capitalism “European way.”
When a nation, like the United States, uses the libertarian way, it allows corporations to send whatever products they want into the marketplace, regardless of how dangerous those products are. The theory is that once people notice how deadly something is, they will stop buying it and the "free-market" will magically correct itself.
Nations that use the regulated European way, however, force manufacturers to prove that products are safe to use before they’re available for purchase. This is called the “precautionary principle” and it requires manufacturers to prove to government, and thus to society, us that the new product is safe before it’s let it in the marketplace.
Here’s how this country’s libertarian approach to regulation killed my best friends, my father, and the family of one of my coworkers.
Scientists and health experts knew as far back as one hundred years ago that asbestos caused a god-awful form of lung cancer called mesothelioma, but because America doesn’t use the precautionary principle, toxic asbestos was used in homes, workplaces, and even schools, well into the 1970s.
My friend Terry, my friend Rob, and my father all died of mesothelioma. My coworker Heidi’s life was torn apart by her parents’ fight with the disease and I believe that this pain led directly to her death two years ago.
Consider these human stories:
When Terry O'Connor and I owned an herbal tea factory back in the 1970s, we didn’t mow the front lawn for weeks at a time and the city hit us with a big fine. Terry was an artist and I was a rebel, so instead of paying the fine, we elaborately labeled every weed in the front yard with fully designed artwork on wooden stakes and filled out the appropriate paper work to have our front lawn designated as a botanical garden.
This got us out of that big fine. We could have mowed the lawn in fifteen minutes. Setting up a botanical garden took weeks of what are now wonderful memories.
But years earlier, at the motor wheel factory where he worked for about a year during college, Terry went through one to three pairs of asbestos gloves a day. Along with his other factory workers, he had to use those gloves to remove burning hot steel wheel parts from a giant press that was three stories tall. The line went really fast, and it was dreadful work.
I talked to Terry over the past few months almost every weekend by Skype. His oxygen tube was the least of his discomforts, while chemo flowed through his veins adding a few more weeks or months to his life.
Terry was special and America would have been better with Terry on this planet for another 10 or twenty years. I know I would be better if he was still here. His wife, children and grandchildren would be too.
My Dad, Carl, loved books and loved history and, after spending two years in the army during World War II, was hoping to graduate from college and teach history, perhaps even at the university level if he could hang on to the GI Bill and his day job in a camera store long enough to get his Ph.D. It was 1950, and he'd been married just a few months, when the surprise came that forced him to drop out of college: his wife was pregnant with their first child – me.
This was an era when husbands worked, wives tended the home, and being a good father and provider was one of the highest callings to which a man could aspire. My dad dropped out of school, kept his day job from 9 to 5 at the camera shop, and got a second job at a metal fabricating plant, working with molten hot metal from 7 pm to 4 AM. He was exposed to toxic asbestos for most of that grueling shift.
For much of his wife's pregnancy and his newborn son's first year, my Dad slept 3 hours a night and caught up on weekends, but in the process earned enough to get them an apartment and cover the costs of starting a family. Over the next 45 years, he continued to work in the steel and machine industry. In later years he worked as a bookkeeper and manager for a Michigan tool-and-die company, as three more sons were born.
In 2006, my Dad injured himself tripping on the stairs and ended up in the hospital with a compression fracture of his spine: what he thought was causing the terrible pain he'd been experiencing in his abdomen. The doctors, however, discovered that his lungs were filled with mesothelioma. His doctor told him he had six months to live, and he died in excruciating pain - all because he wanted to do right by his family.
Heidi Tauber, my co-host on KPOJ radio, grew up in Libby, Montana. Her father was a police officer and her mom worked around the asbestos mines. Asbestos mining was a principal business for the town, and the air was filled with asbestos dust.
Both of Heidi's parents died from mesothelioma, as did many of the citizens of Libby. Heidi was wounded by that as well as the death of much of her extended family and many of her childhood friends from mesothelioma. Her death a few years ago was, in my opinion, partly caused by those wounds.
Rob Wiktorski, was one our employees at the Tea Factory. One day, when he was putting bags of extra white package peanuts in the attic, my wife Louise showed up with our eldest daughter, who was 2 years old at the time. Our daughter asked Rob what the bags were. He and Terry told her that "this was where the snow gets stored for winter." Our daughter was amazed and for months kept talking about how we were the keepers of snow.
Before Rob worked for us at the Tea Factory, he had worked in the auto industry and was exposed to asbestos just like Terry, and just like my Dad.
All of these people were technically killed by asbestos, but they were really killed by the unregulated libertarian capitalism that allowed big corporations to put asbestos into the marketplace even though they knew it killed people. Deregulation – or our laissez-faire libertarian unregulated capitalism – is what really killed them all.
We’ve now outlawed asbestos in the United States, in both the workplace and the marketplace. But today, right now, there are more than 80,000 chemicals in the environment, here in the U.S. that we haven’t even begun to test out to find how toxic or deadly they might be. And we’re only just beginning to look at GMOs.
Europe and Japan use the precautionary principle. They make corporations prove that their products are safe before they let them into the marketplace.
But our country is still one big libertarian experiment. And with exploding autism and cancer rates, we'll probably find out in the next generation what's out there right now that people will look back on in 30 years the same way we look back on asbestos today.
Our country needs to seriously reconsider unregulated libertarian capitalism and think about the safety of people, everyday people, as a higher priority than the profits of hustlers and giant corporations.
The planet would be a better place if all these people had lived their natural lives out. I know I would have been better with them in the world and so would their families and friends.
Good bye and God-speed, Terry, Dad, Heidi and Rob.
I'll miss you.