Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Laws and Sausages

“Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made.” Attributed to Otto von Bismarck

The chaotic ending of the 2017 regular and special sessions of the Minnesota legislature prompted multiple references to sausage making. Most comments reflected the sentiment in the attributed Bismarck quotation. As someone with Germanic ancestry (where sausages are a staple of everyday life), a Minnesota citizen (where laws help shape our everyday life), and a state agency head (where I can actually observe how laws are made), I say baloney!

Even though I recognize this quotation as a “tongue in cheek” statement, the actions of the last few weeks make me wonder if others actually take it literally – that laws should be made outside of the view of the public. We need to reframe the discussion; laws are like sausages and it’s absolutely essential for our health and the long-term well-being of our society to see what’s in them and how they are made.

Sausage making is a traditional food preservation technique going back thousands of years. It is also a conservation technique that helped assure that no vital nutrients were lost or wasted. Sausages helped sustain societies through cold, tough times and fortified them as they grew and expanded. They also embodied a great deal of cultural variety and helped add flavor to an often mundane existence.

When times were good, choice cuts of meat were used to make sausages. When times were tough, less desirable parts of animals were included along with other fillers and, with various spices and preparation techniques, made to be palatable, even tasty. Because sausages were crucial to people’s survival, it was recognized early on that consumers needed to know what went into sausages and how they were made. Given the sausage-making process, it was too easy for unskilled or unscrupulous butchers to create tainted products that frequently led to illness and death. This need was graphically reinforced even into the 20th century when the 1906 book “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclair highlighted the unsanitary and unsafe working conditions in the meat packing industry. This book led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food and Drug Administration.

Today, sausages are produced according to recipes; the ingredients are specified, carefully measured, and accurately identified on a label. Inspectors from the United States Department of Agriculture regularly inspect plants that make sausages for public consumption. For our health, well-being, and long-term survival it’s important to know how sausages are made.

Laws have been around at least as long as sausages (probably longer) and are even more essential to the long-term survival and prosperity of a community. Ideally, they add stability, fairness, security, and opportunity to a society. They help communities thrive during good times and sustain themselves during tough times. They help make best use of resources and help people optimally grow and develop. But that only happens when the lawmaking recipe includes openness to scrutiny, assurance that the voices of community members are part of the process, and lawmakers being accountable to their constituents. If that transparency and participation is absent, the needs of the wealthy are often prioritized over those of the poor, the community good is subjugated to the needs of some individuals, and long-term investments are delayed to meet short-term objectives. If we fail to inspect and monitor the process, a great deal of pork can get into laws leading to legitimate beefs by those left out. (Sorry about that.)

Laws are like sausages but for our health, well-being, and long-term prosperity it’s important to know how both our sausages and laws are made. We should never turn our eyes away from either and risk our health and the health of our democracy.

Now I’m going to go out and grill some well-inspected bratwurst – I think there’s a law that says you have to do that on Memorial Day.