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    No, Really, Think of the Children

    “I am a centrist who understands that to serve the taxpayer, you have to make tough and often unpopular decisions. Unfortunately, my opposition to unnecessary spending is often interpreted by others as being inflexible.”

    The above quote was from a statement released by the office of Suffolk County’s Executive Steve Levy. The economic crisis is hitting budgets hard on every level of government and Suffolk County, which is facing a $119 million budget gap, is no exception. The question is, is Levy’s attempts to trim the budget the right way to go?

    The question has sparked a feud between Levy and Suffolk’s other top-elected Democrat, Presiding Officer William Lindsay (D.-Holbrook). Last year, the two butted heads over a decision to close or sell a county-owned Nursing home in Yaphank. This time, Levy is proposing to cut restaurant health inspector jobs. Lindsay has criticized this move as being dangerous to public health. Despite my disagreements with Levy in the past — his image as the champion against illegal immigrants is a hysterical, and cheap, political ploy — I must admit that I find myself siding with him on this fiscal budget issue. During times of budget shortages, we have to find areas to cut. While that’s going to come at someone’s expense, we have to think of the big picture here.

    Lindsay’s response is typical of the “big government” crowd and is expected, but must be ultimately dismissed. Lindsay’s reaction reminds me of those politicians who sponsor new and expensive regulation by appealing to the “but, think of the children!” mantra. Does the legislation actually help protect children? Maybe they do, but the point is to push through expensive bills, give the government and politicians more power, and paint the opposition, usually the economically conservative-minded, as uncaring of, or even spiteful towards, mankind’s weakest members. It’s this type of fallacious argument (an appeal to emotion, for logic buffs) is responsible for many — sometimes wasteful — government programs, such as No Child Left Behind, some gun control laws, gay marriage bans, and many more. The point of the appeal is to prevent critical thinking by evoking an emotional response from voters.

    By proposing to cut health inspector jobs, does Levy not care about the state of the public health? No, not necessarily. More likely, he sees health inspection as large source of strain on the budget, but one that our country will be ok with less of.

    Before you accuse me of not “thinking of the children,” let me explain. Restaurants have a strong incentive to maintain high standards of public health. Neglecting high cleanliness standards will force restaurant owners to deal with law suits and loss of businesses. In some ways, in fact, since consumers assume some government agent is going to be inspecting a restaurant we’re eating at, we’re actually worse off. How many of us check the Suffolk County of Health’s Restaurant Inspection database, put online in 2002 — even though the layout looks more archaic — before dining out? We think the government has our back, but do they really?

    I checked Stony Brook University’s dining services. The Student Activity Center dining hall has no critical violations to report, but the last inspection was done in 2007. Jasmine and Kelly haven’t gotten a visit since 2006. The food court in the Indoor Sports Complex — 2004. At the Union Deli, three different violations where found this past February with the “enforcement status” as “Litigation Pending.”

    The long time period between inspections and outright violations tell me that government cannot keep up with consumer demand when it comes to health inspection. Maybe governments should get out of the business altogether and let private inspectors take over. That way, restaurants would have to contract with an inspection company, so the tax payers don’t have to foot the bill at all.

    Furthermore, competition between inspectors would make sure standards remain high, and inspectors would want learn how to communicate more effectively with consumers. If an inspector relies on consumer demand for business, they’ll be more interested in keeping those consumers educated about when and what standards of health safety they use. Consumers would have to take a more active role in thinking about their health and safety, instead of misplacing their trust in the government.

    How many more Salmonella or E. coli outbreaks will it take before we stop blindly-trusting the FDA? Politicians want to throw more money at the problem, but when has that ever helped? Free market competition keeps costs down by producing procedural or technological innovation. Maybe its time we apply this logic to the food inspection business. By giving the FDA, or the Suffolk County Board of Health, our complete trust and a market monopoly we shouldn’t be surprised when we get disease outbreaks, health violations, insufficient inspectors and the need for more taxpayer money without guarantee of better results.

    Levy hasn’t floated this proposal yet — and I doubt that he will — but one thing is certain: We need to erase the budget gap, and we need to think of clever ways in which to do it. We have to look at the economics of the situation and figure out how to maximize results and minimize costs. We need to be innovative. We can’t afford to let politics continue as usual and we can’t afford to let the unions dictate policy. We all need to be ready to compromise and be willing to make sacrifices. Anything less than this, and we’re not going to be able to survive the economic recession.

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