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MN2020 Journal: Will Conservatives Declare that Hand Washing is "Bad for Business?"

September 25, 2009 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow
The flu season is upon us. Despite widespread concern with the H1N1 virus and rising flu rates, I predict that soon and with considerable fanfare conservative voices will insist that hand-washing, mouth-covering and cough-containment are bad for business.

I have no rational basis for my assumption but I'm guided by conservative public policymakers who seem to have no rational basis for many of their policy pronouncements. Therefore, I feel I'm on solid ground even without supporting data.

Most public health directives are common sense. Eat well. Get plenty of rest. Don't go to work sick. Drink clean water. Wash your hands after using the bathroom. Additionally, the public health system's track record is pretty strong. Minnesotans no longer routinely die from dysentery or cholera, a big improvement over the 19th century.

When public health professionals tell me that I should get a flu shot, I believe them. When they tell me that common sense personal protection steps are also important, I'm equally inclined to believe them.

Sure, these basic public health flu virus containment measures are simply executed, easily remembered and highly effective. But, because we use government to communicate this most profoundly common sense public health preventative strategy, conservatives must, eventually, insist that it's wrong.

Conservatives, you'll recall, wasted little time deriding President Obama for urging people to diligently wash their hands and avert their coughs to help slow the H1N1 flu virus' spread.  I understand the conservative desire to simply attack progressive leaders with whatever means necessary. Public health issues broadly and the H1N1 virus narrowly shouldn't be public policy playthings yet conservatives stride into this arena with little sense of civic responsibility.

Confronted with a strongly argued and reasoned policy proposal, conservative policy advocates can be counted on to object on the basis that the proposal is "bad for business."

In the distant 2006 past, for example, Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was guardedly green. I never believed him for a second but he garnered national press for his 2007 National Governors Association chair's "clean energy" themed tenure. Now, he can't put enough distance between this position and his current views.

Pawlenty regularly asserts that pro-environmental measures would be imprudently bad for business. He even hints at his solidarity with climate change deniers. This is, apparently, an important conservative constituency group that requires placation.

He's not alone. Every competitive conservative contender to succeed Pawlenty as Minnesota's policymaker-in-chief apes Pawlenty's climate change denials and his bad-for-business rhetoric. Some are more strident than others but, as MPR's Tim Pugmire wrote, "Most of the GOP candidates say their goal is keeping energy costs down. State Sen. David Hann of Eden Prairie said lawmakers have passed standards that are adding to the cost of energy and hurting the economy."

This is conservative code that means "clean energy be damned" in case you missed it.

I think every Minnesotan understands that our economy is hurting. We want public policy proposals that move Minnesota forward, not drive us backwards. We could return to dried buffalo dung as fireplace fuel but I don't think most people are keen on that solution. Setting smell aside, dung fires produce extraordinary amounts of particulate matter, contributing to the global greenhouse warming effect.

Rationality doesn't appear to be a conservative strong suite. Whether responsibly mitigating human environmental impacts or containing disease transmission, conservative policy advocates seem to start by rejecting the research and promptly pivoting to ideology. Wanting the H1N1 flu virus to go away won't make it happen. Ignoring climate change doesn't alter climate change's relentless progression.

Rather than retreating to the "bad for business" condemnation, Minnesotans should be asking, "What's good for business"? Moving Minnesota's economy forward requires a skilled workforce flowing from strong public schools; a robust transportation infrastructure; foresightful economic development strategies; and affordable health care. Staying healthy and staying on the job is good business.

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