How About Using A “People” Yardstick to Rank States?
by Ralph Nader
August 21, 2003
For years now, a commercial consulting firm has been releasing annual "business climate" rankings of the 50 states. The business press reports these rankings widely. Chambers of commerce and other lobbies raise the pressure on their respective states toward the lowest common denominator of the most corporate-indentured state jurisdictions.
This pressure usually means getting states to lower corporate taxes, increase corporate subsidies, go slower on law enforcement of existing consumer, environmental and investor protection laws, repeal or weaken consumer and environmental laws, limit worker's compensation benefits and enact anti-trade- union laws--to name a few indulgences.
The "hammer" is to point to the 50 state rankings and explicitly confront elected and appointed state officials with the spectre or reality of losing industry and commerce to more permissive states.
This past year, a "tort deform" organization in Washington, D.C. issued its ranking of which states are more or less protective of corporate and professional "tortfeasors" (meaning perpetrators of wrongful injuries) when these businesses are sued in court by their victims.
Of course, this group uses the phrase "tort reform" to rank the states. But everyone who uses these state rankings knows that the top rankings go to states whose statutes and courts make it more restrictive for injured plaintiffs to have their full day in court against the defendant-perpetrators. These state rankings also received wide publicity.
It should be axiomatic that those who control the yardsticks by which an activity or sector is measured will most likely control the focus or parameters of debate.
So, it is way overdue for some "people" yardsticks to be annually produced within the 50 state format. Let's start with a "worker's climate" ranking of the states. Rank states based on better minimum wages, workers compensation and unemployment compensation benefits, safe workplaces, strong labor union and privacy laws, whistle-blower protections, health insurance, fair labor standards, and enforcement budgets against company abuses of workers and their pensions.
In an increasingly mobile workforce economy, blue-collar and white-collar workers could have a more informed choice about where to work. Also the publicity over these rankings would certainly shame, if not dissuade, state law-makers and executive-branch officials from being so anti-worker. Moreover, a livelier public debate would result, instead of just being restricted to "business climate" agendas.
A second ranking of the states should be consumer protection. Which of the states do a better or worse job in dealing with protection of children, in going after or preventing abuses of home-buyers by the bank-mortgage-real estate industry? Which states are more active in standing up for insurance buyers, bank customers, food buyers, telephone, electric and gas customers, tenants, ghetto dwellers subject to immensely gouging pay day loans, predatory lending and rent-to-own rackets? Maryland's consumer protections are generally better than those in nearby Virginia, for example.
A third ranking of the 50 states could relate to environmental protection. While federal laws here are often pre-emptive of states, there is still a brace of weaker or stronger environmental laws at the state level. I remember southern states being so lenient that they allowed pesticide spraying trucks to go through residential areas with children running behind enveloped by the moving chemical clouds. This is not so likely in the northeastern and mid-western areas of the country.
There could be comparisons over drinking water safeguards, the level of permitted acidic runoffs, air pollution, non-smoking areas, waste disposal, recycling, forest management, beach monitoring, availability of parks in good condition, encouraging solar and energy conservation and preserving river purity and flow, for example.
There are available data to do this. For instance, the EPA reports that Texas polluters regularly release the most toxic materials into the environment. Louisiana and Ohio are also in the top tier often. For starters, see a report by Southern Exposure at www.southernstudies.org.
Comparative rankings that provide impetus or incentive for states to compete for the best, instead of "business climate" rankings that result in states racing towards the bottom, are tasks that can be performed by existing institutions. For example, Consumers Union or the University of Wisconsin Law School consumer law section could undertake the consumer protection ratings. The larger environmental groups have the ability to evaluate the states in their area of expertise. "Workers climate" would seem right up the alley of the AFL-CIO or labor studies institutes at Universities, if the Department of Labor declined to be true to its name.
One ranking task would be simple. Earlier I mentioned the group representing the tortfeasors' lobby ranking the states' treatment of wrongfully injured people in their courts. Assuming a draconian accuracy to their research, one only has to turn their list of the fifty states upside down.
Ralph Nader is America’s leading consumer advocate. He is the founder of numerous public interest groups including Public Citizen, and has twice run for President as a Green Party candidate. His latest book is Crashing the Party: How to Tell the Truth and Still Run for President (St. Martin’s Press, 2002)