A Consumer Agenda for an Uber World

Ten sensible reforms to enhance consumer control.

As the 17 (not a typo) GOP presidential candidates gather for the first big televised debates tomorrow, I wonder if any candidate will be reduced, like Gov. Rick Perry four years ago, to 50 seconds of awkwardness?

Here’s one question that could certainly cause a blank stare: What as president would you do to promote the interests of consumers as opposed to business?

After blinking for a moment, most GOP candidates would simply recite the usual platitudes about tax cuts and deregulation, perhaps followed by a paean to the free market. But a specific plan to help consumers? No candidate will offer one, because none has one. Republicans don’t do the whole “pro-consumer” thing. It’s not in their DNA.

Why? Why does the GOP leave the entire consumer protection field to the Democrats? Every voter is a consumer, after all, and most consumers are old enough to vote.

The mystery of GOP silence gets deeper in view of the tendency of Democratic consumer advocates to prescribe more bureaucracy, more mandates and more price controls – things God presumably put Republicans on this earth to oppose. These topdown approaches are also looking awfully anachronistic in an age of Uber, Bitcoin and 1.5 million iPhone apps.

Here’s my theory. Republicans are silent on consumer issues because the GOP is, at bottom, the Party of Business. When they aren’t extolling the benefits of entrepreneurship and job creation (on behalf of small business), Republicans are vigorously defending taxpayer subsidies like the Export-Import Bank (to help their big donors in big business). Consumers just don’t appear on their radar.

And yet, as the Ex-Im fight shows, the GOP is becoming less business-centered. There’s a wing of the party that’s more pro-market than pro-business, and it’s becoming restive. Instead of sharing Dodd-Frank Democrats’ wish for more government or Chamber of Commerce Republicans’ cronyist urge, these liberty-minded Republicans stand for more competition, which, in the long run, is the consumer’s only sure friend.

What the pro-market wing needs right now (and the GOP needs, if it ever hopes to challenge the Democrats’ monopoly in this area) is a specific consumer agenda that goes beyond the usual free-market platitudes. As a public service, therefore, I propose herewith the first-ever (to my knowledge) Republican Party Consumer Agenda:

1. Defend Uber-style sharing apps. Anyone who has used Uber, Lyft or similar ride-sharing apps knows how excellent they are compared to old-fashioned, price-controlled cab companies. No wonder investors value stock in the Uber ride-sharing app at more than $50 billion, bigger than Facebook at a comparable stage. The app economy, derided by Hillary Clinton as the gig economy, is spreading like wildfire for a reason: Consumers love it. So do workers, for whom sharing apps mean more income, a more flexible work style, and a higher quality of life. Uber-style commerce threatens existing monopolies and outdated models. That’s why labor unions, bureaucracies, legacy corporate interests and big-government liberals seek to stamp them out – dinosaurs unamused by the appearance of mammals.

2. Legalize cell-phone unlocking – permanently. A year ago, President Barack Obama signed a bill allowing consumers to unlock their cell phones, so they could switch wireless carriers without having to buy a new device. Unfortunately, the bill is only temporary and doesn’t apply to tablets or other devices. Let’s fix that.

3. End forced arbitration. Nowadays, almost every standard consumer contract – be it for a credit card, rental car, software download or nursing-home admission – contains a fine-print clause that deprives you of your right to sue in the event the company harms you. Pre-dispute forced-arbitration agreements unconscionably foreclose access to the protections of a civil jury trial and yet are proliferating as corporate America takes advantage of a series of recent, pro-business Supreme Court rulings that arguably infringe on the reserved powers of the states. They certainly hurt consumers. Ending them is a no-brainer for conservatives. Congress should help them die.

4. Protect our privacy like you mean it. In a networked world, protecting consumers’ privacy requires constant vigilance and stiff penalties for snoops. We should make it harder, not easier, for companies and the government to store, read and sell our personal information without our knowledge or permission. Bulk data collection violates the Fourth Amendment; agencies like the National Security Agency should be forced to get a search warrant, every single time.

5. Give terminal patients the “right to try.” More than 20 states have passed right-to-try laws that allow terminal patients to try experimental drugs to save their lives, even if the drugs aren’t FDA-approved. All states should pass this “compassionate use” measure, and Congress should make sure FDA doesn’t stand in the way.

6. Hands off our e-cigs. Electronic cigarettes are an increasingly popular alternative to tobacco products. While no consumer product is 100 percent safe, the best evidence suggests these devices are safer than tobacco. They should be welcomed, not over-regulated.

7. Scrap ethanol subsidies – for starters. At the top of the list of subsidies deserving elimination are federal tax breaks for corn farmers, as well as the EPA’s mandates to mix corn-derived ethanol into gasoline. Ample evidence shows these policies drive up the price of food and fuel. Meanwhile, mindless sugar subsidiesdrive up the amount of unhealthy high-fructose corn syrup in our diet.

8. Expand health care choice. To liberate health care consumers, we should repeal the Affordable Care Act’s coercive individual mandate (and the even stiffer mandate in Medicare) and make Health Savings Accounts available to all Americans, including (currently excluded) Medicare seniors and religious families who rely on mutual aid (“health-care sharing“) instead of traditional insurance.

9. Legalize currency choice. Inflation is the consumer’s single greatest enemy. And permitting currency choice is the best way to fight inflation. New electronic currencies like Bitcoin provide consumer benefits and hurt no one. We should pass former Rep. Ron Paul’s Free Competition in Currency Act and Senator Mike Lee’s, R-Utah, Sound Money Promotion Act. The former would re-legalize all money other than U.S. greenbacks; the latter would re-legalize the use of U.S.-minted gold and silver coins as money (i.e., stop taxing the metal in them).

10. Give parents school choice, not “Common Core.” Parents, not bureaucrats, are the real consumers of K-12 education. There are better ideas to give them more control, from charter schools to vouchers, than topdown national standards. Parents’ response to the unpopular “Common Core” scheme favored by establishment leaders like Jeb Bush has ranged from lack of enthusiasm to intense opposition. Maybe we should listen more to those who actually rely on these services?

Is it possible for the Party of Business to displace the Party of Government as the Party of Consumers? There’s only one way to find out. Offer a better plan.

Dean F. Clancy, a former senior official in the White House and Congress, writes on U.S. budget and constitutional issues. Follow him on Twitter: @DeanClancy.


[Originally published at USNews.com, August 6, 2015. @USNewsOpinion. Reposted at DeanClancy.com.]

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