Before we go crazy with our scissors and wildly start cutting “red tape” in order to jump-start Maine’s sluggish economy and thereby create thousands of jobs, it seems wise to pause a moment and define exactly what we mean by that phrase.
That’s because in these polarized times, important and complicated issues too often get framed in simple terms that hide what’s really happening. Our concern, then, is that “red tape” might too easily become the catch phrase by which the legitimate debate over job creation becomes framed: Q. Why doesn’t Maine have more jobs? A. It’s because of “red tape.”
With the issue thus framed, the logical solution to our problem is easily identified: To get more jobs, cut the “red tape.” It’s straightforward and easy to grasp.
But, as the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” In this case, one person’s “red tape” might well be another person’s “necessary regulation.”
If by “red tape” we mean – according to a definition provided by Wikipedia – “the filling out of seemingly unnecessary paperwork, obtaining of unnecessary licenses, having multiple people or committees approve a decision and various low-level rules that make conducting one’s affairs slower, more difficult, or both,” then by all means let’s eliminate it.
It’s a worthy goal and if that’s what our newly elected Republican governor and GOP-led Legislature mean by “red tape,” they’re absolutely right to make it a priority.
But Wikipedia offers another definition of “red tape” and this one should give us pause: “A derisive term for excessive regulation (emphasis added) or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders or prevents action or decision-making.”
The rub in this definition rests in that subjective word “excessive.”
If by “cutting red tape” we mean rolling back and refusing to enforce a host of basic regulatory protections created by consensus over decades, we’d bet right now that at least 62 percent of Mainers would disagree (i.e., the total percentage of voters who did not choose Paul LePage to be our next governor). Heck, we’ll go even further and bet a good number of his supporters also would disagree. Anyone who remembers the Androscoggin River when smelly fluffy foam floated down from the papermills along its banks will hardly want a return to those “good ol’ days.”
If by “cutting red tape” we mean appointing industry officials to oversee regulatory agencies, we’ll place the same bet as above. Jack DeCoster might well regard FDA regulations at his egg farms as burdensome “red tape,” but the 1,500 people sickened by eating salmonella-contaminated eggs from his Iowa egg farm certainly wish regulators had done a better job of enforcing those standards.
So, let’s be explicit in defining what we mean by “red tape.” It’s not always a bad thing, if it means making sure businesses understand that they do not have carte blanché rights to poison our waters, pollute our air, pillage our forests, exploit Maine workers, wreck our communities.
Job creation is an essential and worthy goal. It should not come at the expense of other equally essential aspects of our common good.
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