The following Op-Ed commentary was broadcast on the All Things Considered program on National Public Radio (NPR) on Tuesday, March 31, 2009.
Click here to listen, comment or recommend it.
Who needs a commerce secretary anyway? What we need is a secretary for consumers.
If consumer confidence and consumer spending is what it takes to get America’s economy moving, then why isn’t there a consumer advocate in the Cabinet?
Wall Street and the banks have their treasury secretary. The rest of the Fortune 500 is represented by the commerce post. Lockheed has the Pentagon. Even labor unions have a labor secretary. But the consumer has no seat at the table in the Cabinet room or the entire West Wing.
Is it any wonder consumers have no confidence anymore? We don’t even get a seat near the president.
Sure, we’ll hear from the Consumer Product Safety Commission when the light in our kids’ Easy Bake Oven burns the dog. The FDA might tell us that the stuff that cures our headaches could destroy our liver. And yeah, we can tell our nightmares about cell phone hell to the FCC, if we can get through. None of this truly inspires consumer confidence.
If we consumers had a secretary of consumer affairs who reported directly to the president, then the trillion-dollar bailout of the banks might have included a national cap on how much any bailed-out bank could charge a consumer in interest. Really, why should a bank propped up by taxpayers, which receives 0 percent loans from Uncle Sam, be able to charge 20 percent interest on credit cards?
Now try making that argument in the Cabinet room without a consumer affairs secretary. The only person who could bring it up would be the guy delivering the sandwiches.
The idea of a separate consumer representation agency, one that does not make regulation but protects consumers from the other agencies, was last debated during the Carter administration. Public polls showed 2-to-1 support and the legislation passed the Senate or House five times, only to be killed each time by corporate lobbyists who didn’t want anyone with the ear of the president looking over their shoulders.
Well now that corporations are on their backs and asking for handouts, how about a little something for the consumer in return?
What better stimulus for the bottom-up, participatory government and economy President Obama promised than making the consumer a part of the economic recovery discussion at the highest level, not simply the subject of it.
Even better, it won’t cost much — which is good, since there isn’t much taxpayer money left.
Jamie Court is an author and consumer advocate. He is president of Consumer Watchdog, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.