On this day in 1962, President Kennedy laid out in a speech to Congress the framework for a consumer bill of rights and the crucial role the federal government must play in protecting those rights.
Kennedy’s call to arms is now marked every March 15 as World Consumer Rights Day, which seeks to advance “guidelines for consumer protection” backed by the United Nations.
Yet over half a century later, the current occupant of the Oval Office, President Trump, a wealthy businessman, is aggressively pursuing policies that undermine each of Kennedy’s declared rights.
So it’s worthwhile asking: Is it too late to change course? Have corporate interests prevailed?
I put those questions this week to a number of experts.
The consensus was that there’s still hope. But to achieve genuine reform, with consumer rights receiving anything more than lip service, will require a sea change in policy making.
“I think we can still make progress to establish better rules,” said Emily Rusch, executive director of the California Public Interest Research Group. “But right now we’re definitely playing defense.”
Kennedy saw which way the wind was blowing when he gave his speech 56 years ago.
Just as his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, warned a year earlier against “the acquisition of unwarranted influence ... by the military/industrial complex,” Kennedy sensed that the American public remained under threat by corporate interests.
“If consumers are offered inferior products, if prices are exorbitant, if drugs are unsafe or worthless, if the consumer is unable to choose on an informed basis, then his dollar is wasted, his health and safety may be threatened, and the national interest suffers,” he said in his speech.
Kennedy proposed four basic consumer rights:
The right to safety: “To be protected against the marketing of goods which are hazardous to health or life.”
The right to be informed: “To be protected against fraudulent, deceitful or grossly misleading information, advertising, labeling or other practices, and to be given the facts he needs to make an informed choice.”
The right to choose: “To be assured, wherever possible, access to a variety of products and services at competitive prices.” And if a market lacks competition, regulations to assure “satisfactory quality and service at fair prices.”
The right to be heard: “To be assured that consumer interests will receive full and sympathetic consideration in the formulation of government policy.”
Moreover, Kennedy understood that such rights need to be overseen and vigorously defended.
“The federal government — by nature the highest spokesman for all the people — has a special obligation to be alert to the consumer's needs and to advance the consumer's interests,” he said.
It was a stance no less bold than the speech he’d give a few months later in which he called for America to place a man on the moon. And some of Kennedy’s ideas reached a degree of fruition.
A Consumer Product Safety Commission was created in 1972. A Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was established in 2010. Both agencies, however, are only as effective as the people leading them.
Trump’s pick to run the product safety commission, Ann Marie Buerkle, has served as acting chairwoman since February 2017. She failed to win confirmation by the U.S. Senate last year amid concerns she was too cozy with the industries she’d oversee.
Trump re-nominated her in January.
The financial protection bureau is in a state of flux as Trump’s interim director, White House budget chief Mick Mulvaney, reduces oversight of banks, payday lenders and other firms. “We have committed to fulfill the bureau's statutory responsibilities, but go no further,” he declared last month.
Experts say that while Kennedy recognized a need to protect consumers, Trump is more concerned with protecting businesses.
“The Trump administration is absolutely decimating consumer rights,” said Prentiss Cox, an associate law professor at the University of Minnesota. “We’ve never really seen another administration that’s so blatantly hostile to the idea of the government protecting consumers.”
He told me change is possible, but there’s no question that corporations exert even more influence over politicians now than they did during Kennedy’s time. Both Republicans and Democrats, he said, are beholden to corporate interests.
Consumer advocates try to remain positive, but there’s a sense that the country is now so far down the road of corporate control, it would be all but impossible to implement a consumer bill of rights as sweeping as what Kennedy envisioned.
“President Kennedy’s dream of a consumer bill of rights dims with every day that goes by,” said Sally Greenberg, executive director of the National Consumers League. “The unraveling of generations of consumer rights and protections is unprecedented in this administration.”
There are glimmers of hope. Even as it’s being crippled by the Trump administration, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau still maintains (for now) a complaint database that fulfills, to some extent, Kennedy’s right to be heard.
There are disclosure laws at the state and federal levels that facilitate consumers’ right to be informed — about data breaches, for example, or a credit card’s terms and conditions.
“Overall, I would say things are better than they used to be,” said Jeff Sovern, a professor at St. John's University School of Law in New York. “But under this president, the government is not keeping Kennedy’s commitment to protect consumers.”
He added: “I could imagine Trump first endorsing a consumer bill of rights, and then walking it back after he spoke to lobbyists and members of his administration, which unfortunately may be the same thing at this point.”
In Kennedy’s time, consumer spending accounted for about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. His consumer bill of rights was motivated by a recognition that if an unfair or unfriendly marketplace prompted consumers to curtail spending, the consequences for the overall economy would be disastrous.
Today, consumer spending represents almost three-quarters of the economy, making Kennedy’s concern of even greater importance.
“As all of us are consumers, these actions and proposals in the interest of consumers are in the interest of us all,” Kennedy said.
He added that the voice of consumers “is not always as loudly heard in Washington” as those of businesses, and that politicians “share an obligation to protect the common interest in every decision we make.”
Fifty-three years later, shortly after announcing his run for the presidency, Trump boasted that it was easy for him to buy favors from politicians. “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” he said.
Putting that more concisely at a campaign rally a few months later, he said: “When I want something, I get it. When I call, they kiss my ass, OK? It's true. They kiss my ass.”