Our Progressive Vision: We need a marketplace that is fair to everyone. That requires fundamental rules to ensure consumer products are safe and the terms of sales and investments are open and honest. In four ways, we need to ensure that everyone plays by the same fair rules, by: (1) ensuring that food is safe, drugs are pure, and products are free from dangerous defects; (2) insisting that financial institutions not only refuse to cheat customers but also that their services provide a legitimate benefit to society; (3) requiring all businesses to follow basic rules of economic decency; and (4) guaranteeing justice for average Americans and small businesses in civil litigation.
Consumer product safety
The federal government created consumer product safety law piecemeal, beginning with minimum standards for flammable fabrics in the 1950s. The Consumer Product Safety Commission, authorized in 1972, provides the most protection on the federal level, but it’s still not enough. Thus, states also provide a layer of protection, such as California’s Safe Cosmetics Act, Washington’s Children’s Safe Products Act, bans on toxic chemicals in children’s products, restrictions on genetically engineered foods, and numerous state regulations about the handling and preparation of food.
The Great Recession of 2007-09 reminded Americans that our financial system is unstable, unfair, and often provides no real benefit to society. Both states and localities have responded with a variety of protections: limiting predatory mortgage lending and payday lending; stopping unnecessary property foreclosures and unfair debt collection practices; and controlling the marketing of credit cards, debit cards, and pre-paid cards.
Fair and open business practices
Markets benefit society only when the same rules are fairly applied and vigorously enforced on everyone. States, cities and counties play a big role in that, prohibiting false advertising and often providing an agency that investigates and mediates complaints. States enforce contracts, of course, but they also may add special protections against identity theft and violations of privacy.
There has been a decades-long attack on the rights of average Americans to sue businesses for wrongdoing. Called “tort reform,” this effort isn’t “reform” at all; it is a cruel shifting of costs away from rich companies that caused injuries and onto the backs of the innocent people who were injured. States can push back and make their courts fairer by discouraging contract clauses that require forced arbitration or waivers of injunctive relief, and by providing punitive damages and class action relief through legislation that creates minimum standards of contract fairness.
The debt collection business is booming, but many collection company practices are questionable. “Zombie debt” occurs when collection agencies buy expired debt from the original vendor or credit card company for pennies on the dollar. Then they try to trick consumers who do not understand the debt is expired into paying or “acknowledging” the debt, thereby restarting the statute of limitations that barred the original vendor from collecting. Some jurisdictions, like Washington, have passed laws against zombie debt collection practices.
Prepaid debit cards
Every year, Americans spend more than $100 billion on prepaid gift cards for retail stores, restaurants and “universal” prepaid debt cards like Visa. The federal Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 (CARD Act) provides a number of important consumer protections. But many states have adopted prepaid card protections that go beyond the federal law to: ban expiration dates, prohibit service fees, and/or allow customers to get cash when a card’s value falls to less than $5 or $10.
Limiting waivers in form contracts
Provisions are hidden in the fine print of many form contracts that unfairly benefit the vendor when the customer has a valid complaint about the product or service bought. For example, many such contracts force individuals to mandatory arbitration, a system that is stacked in favor of the defendant. States can ban the waiver of rights in certain cases or adopt a sunshine law like California’s disclosure of arbitration outcomes.
Many cosmetics contain carcinogens and toxic chemicals, and more than 20,000 cosmetic products contain ingredients which have never been tested for safety by any publicly-accountable institution. The Safe Cosmetics Act, enacted by California in 2005, requires disclosure of the ingredients in cosmetics, investigation into toxicity, notification to the public, and reports to the state occupational safety authorities when the health of beauty care workers may be at risk.