Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Drowning the Government in a Bathtub. And The Rest of Us With It.

It was Grover Norquist who once famously said that his goal is to make the government small enough to drown in a bathtub. Interestingly, the government has all sorts of functions which people might not want to see drowned that way. The inspection of foodstuffs and medicine is one such example. Currently the Food and Drug Administration is not doing too well on keeping us all safe, because of underfunding:

The Food and Drug Administration is so underfunded and understaffed that it's putting U.S. consumers at risk in terms of food and drug safety, an advisory panel to the FDA says in a report to be discussed Monday.

The report — developed in the past year by experts from academia, industry and other government agencies — delivers a scathing review of the state of the FDA, which regulates 80% of the nation's food, its drugs, vaccines and medical devices.

The report details a "plethora of inadequacies" in the agency, including:

•Inadequate inspections of manufacturers, noting that foodmakers, for example, are inspected about once every 10 years.

•A "badly broken" food-import system and food supply "that grows riskier each year." In the past 35 years, FDA inspections of the food supply have dropped 78% due to soaring numbers of products and inadequate FDA funding.

•A depleted FDA staff, which is about the same size as it was 15 years ago despite huge growth in agency responsibilities. Instead of being proactive, the agency is often in "fire-fighting" mode.

•A workforce with a "dearth" of scientists who understand emerging technologies. Turnover rates in some scientific positions at the FDA run twice that of other government agencies.

•An "obsolete" information-technology system.

I presume Norquist would want every family to run their own little laboratory at home to check the safety of toys and the cough medicine they plan to give their children. Personal responsibility, you know. Of course this makes no sense at all, given the costs and the expertise required.

Or perhaps Norquist would want to see private firms take on the task of food and medicine inspections. Only those who can afford to pay would be guaranteed safe products. Or perhaps the government should outsource these tasks and hand them to some friendly company without any open bidding whatsoever. That way the job would nominally still belong to the government but the money would flow into private pockets. A little like the contractors in Iraq. Would that be an improvement over the FDA?

I doubt it. We really should fund the FDA better.