Government Interference in Private Affairs

Recently some commercial rice, even organically grown rice, was found to have unexpected levels of arsenic. Although these levels were well below the allowable level set by government agencies, the findings raise several issues.

First, would subcritical levels of arsenic accumulate in people’s bodies, especially people such as young children, lactating mothers, pregnant women, or the elderly, and create health problems? Where does this arsenic come from? Is it the soil, and if so, is it all soil? Is it equally distributed? Is arsenic found in other grains, or other foods? Are there ways to eliminate arsenic in growing rice, or cooking it?

Rice was found to have
unexpected levels of arsenic.

What I want to do here is to bring to your attention the only likely source of research on such a topic, the federal government, and to question the wisdom of conservative Republicans’ blanket rejection of all such federal expenses as unnecessary interference.

Each of the questions about rice could become a major study, involving land over a widespread area, thousands of human subjects, complex scientific analyses of rice and other foods and the people who consume them. In fact, some of them already have, which is how we found out about the arsenic in the first place. It is unlikely that any one of them could be done for less than a million dollars, given the necessary expertise, broad field of testing, and the cost of lab work. Ideally, thousands of human subjects over a wide area would be studied, and the best studies would follow them over a period of at least a decade. But practicality will limit the inquiry.

The cost could be enormous. Who could sponsor such studies? The rice growers? Schools of nutrition or medicine? Epidemiologists? There is no question that the federal government is the only agency that has the ability and the money to adequately research a topic like this, should the problem require it.

Only the federal government
can research a topic like this,
but conservatives will oppose it.

But conservatives must be strongly opposed to it, because it is yet another example of Big Government and how it is controlling and interfering in our lives without regard for cost.

Let’s investigate this belief. Say, for the sake of argument, that American-grown rice was found to be universally contaminated with low levels of arsenic, and that this arsenic did indeed tend to accumulate in the tissues of all who ate it. Moreover, although the effect was not readily seen except in large epidemiological studies, most people showed ill effects only after about three decades of regular rice consumption, and some portion of those people, say 5%, showed abnormally deteriorating health.

Let’s put some numbers to that. Assume that about 20% of the population eats rice on a regular basis, several times per week. That’s nearly 63-million people. The 5% of that population that will be seriously affected comes to over 3-million. Let’s guess that the economic cost of declining health in each case is $10,000, which is probably an underestimate. The gross loss to the country therefore comes to over $31-billion.

If conservative Republicans quash $10M in research,
the cost to the public could be 3,000 times greater.

Now, remember that this outcome is pure speculation at this point. What I want to point out is that if conservative Republicans quash $10-million in research on some question that eventually showed a similar outcome to the one I hypothesized, the dollar cost to the public would have been 3,000 times greater than the avoided research cost.

The takeaway is that it is bad policy to oppose government expenses on principle.


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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Leaving aside the overwrought protestations of Tom Coburn et al, there are examples of waste in research, and it’s a topic that the Congressional Budget Office should delve into. Nonetheless, one gets the sneaking suspicion that politics rather than non-partisan pork hunting is at play here. The Heritage Foundation actually does a decent job at identifying REAL government waste. Maybe if we’d clean up some of that mess, we’d be able to fund some breakthrough research.


    • Thanks for the note re Heritage. I’ll look into what they say.


      • I have attempted to check out some of the 50 examples of waste mentioned, and cannot get their links to open. However, I find this list to be a mixed bag. Some of the waste they mention, if confirmed, is either criminal or should be handled within a bureau or by the FBI. There should be a crackdown on credit card use, and on congressional perks, travel, etc. Subsidies to big corporations that don’t need them should be eliminated, including oil and corporate farms. I hate the major fraud and theft stemming from our two recent wars, but they are mostly water over the dam. But many of the things mentioned are due to poor oversight and fraud that legislature can’t fix. I’m suspicious about claims that appear ridiculous, such as payments to teach Chinese prostitutes to drink responsibly. I’ll have more to say when I can open the links.


  2. Both federal and state-funded research have taken major hits in recent years, which creates its own set of problems as you have suggested. Filling this vacuum has been corporate funding, and that has created a whole set of new problems, since corporate funding of research often supports self interest: No scientist is going to bite the hand that feeds him or her.

    Today’s academic realities dictate professors are to publish or perish. At this point, it matters little to the professor pursuing tenure what the findings are, so long as the findings are publishable.


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