Whos watching our backs?

Forty-five dollars for a six-pack of Pepsi; $99 to wash a load of clothes. You’d have to be crazy to pay such prices. Right? Wrong. This is what Halliburton has been charging in Iraq. Soldiers interviewed in the documentary “Iraq for Sale” further complained about laundry coming back filthy, waiting in line for an hour to get a meal and showering in contaminated water. Out of 67 Halliburton water treatment plants, 63 were not providing safe water.

Media reports of billions wasted by Halliburton, Blackwater and other contractors undoubtedly were a factor in the Democrats’ 2006 victory. Now that they control Congress, we can expect continued airing of these outrages, and calls for accountability. In January, Sen. Patrick Leahy introduced a bill to criminalize war profiteering. On Feb. 6, Rep. Henry Waxman convened hearings on waste in Iraq.

Will increasing awareness of corporate greed and incompetence lead Americans to question the belief that government is inept and the private sector does everything better and cheaper? Will it raise doubts about the Republican credo of minimal government and minimal regulation of large corporations, as exemplified by the extreme lack of government oversight of companies in Iraq and consequent loss of billions?

Our longstanding tradition of rugged individualism and antagonism to concentrated power has led to a “government off our backs” mentality, and to blinding many to the need for the federal government to protect us from exploitation by powerful corporations. We need to ensure the safety of our basic needs and rights that they often threaten.

Americans have never wanted government completely off their backs. We have long recognized the need for regulations ensuring clean drinking water and air, sanitary standards in the handling of foods, and free education from elementary through high school. As concerns about corporations increase, will Americans start asking for change?

Our mainstream media’s failure to inform us about conditions in other countries plays a role in our demanding so little. How many are aware that while the spiraling cost of tuition in the United States is making college less accessible to many middle class and working class young people, most wealthy countries offer free or low-cost college education to all students?

A Feb. 14 United Nations report on the well-being of children in 21 wealthy countries ranks the United States last in health and safety. When it comes to health care for the entire population, a World Health Organization 2001 study of 191 countries ranks the United States 37th. The countries that lead the list — France, Spain, Italy — have single-payer health care. How long can we hang on to the myth that corporations are more efficient when Medicare’s overhead is less than 4 percent, while insurance companies keep 15 percent to 25 percent of health care dollars for overhead and profit?

The mining industry provides an excellent example of how lack of government regulation helps corporations and harms ordinary people. In January of last year, 11 of 12 miners trapped in a West Virginia mine perished. A few weeks later, all 70 Canadian miners trapped underground for 24 hours survived, thanks to government regulations requiring sealed off “refuge stations” with oxygen and other supplies lasting up to 36 hours. No such protective regulations exist here. Davitt McAteer, former head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, described U.S. mine safety as being in “the dark ages.”

In response to the highly publicized West Virginia tragedy, the Senate approved a mine safety bill in May. Even though 26 coal miners died in mine accidents nationwide in 2006 alone, few of the bill’s provisions (which require far fewer safety measures than in many other countries) have been enacted.

Corporate America does not fully buy into the notion that government intervention should be avoided. They just want to control it. Whether it’s insurance companies ensuring that government never enacts single-payer universal health care, or mine owners ensuring that government not enact many safety regulations, or agribusinesses blocking regulations that prohibit giving health threatening hormones and antibiotics to farm animals, or big farmers who enjoy government subsidies, or an airline industry dependent on government bailouts — large corporations do indeed welcome government intervention, as long as it’s in their favor.

Myriam Miedzian is a New York-based researcher. This article was distributed by MinutemanMedia.org.