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Assuming Risk BY MOLLY IVINS . Austin PERSON WHO HAS been around the Lege for a while should have better sense than to get caught in the mid dle of a trial-lawyer fight, but what-the-hey, what’s life without risk? That stinker of a products liability bill called SB 4 went through the House on a bullet train recently, with most amendments slammed down by votes that ran about 9346. The thanks of all those suffering from illnesses caused by pollution, those injured and maimed by unsafe products, those poisoned by pesticides and paralyzed in preventable accidents go to the 40-some-odd representatives on the losing side of this one. I realize that a certain strain of populist rhetoric is unfashionable no one truly chic would be caught dead talking like this but if you think there is any check on the greed for profits of most big corporations other than the fear of getting the liver and lights sued out of themselves by some shark trial lawyer, then you’re a bigger damn fool than I ever took you for. Oh, to be sure, in our genteel times, the public relations departments of big corporations spend much money convincing the citizenry that Greed Amalgamated is “a good corporate citizen” gives to local charities, sponsors Little League teams, runs “eco-porn” ads on television \(note Dow Chemical’s wonderful nature ads during the Sunday morning chat does not know to tap-dance gracefully to the “social responsibility” rag? Of course not. But when your basic push comes to your basic profit, notice that it takes the fear of something like a $100 million settlement to make your basic GM see the wisdom of moving their gas tanks inside the frames of their trucks. \(And now a hearty round of boos for the NBC “news” program, which faked a GM truck accident and thus conveniently allowed GM to pose as the injured victim in In the new standard of Texas law just approved by our only Lege, GM could be held liable for a death caused by one of its trucks only if an “economically feasible” alternative design existed. Define “economically feasible.” Well, said the bill’s sponsor, if an improved safety restraint system that adds $15 to the price of a car exists, then it’s eco Molly Ivins, a former Observer editor, is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. nomically feasible. But if a safety improvement that adds $20,000 to the price of a $10,000 car exists, then it’s not economically feasible. Thank you. Whale of a difference between $15 and $20,000, isn’t there? Do you know how long it took Ralph Nader to convince automobile manufacturers to install air bags?. Do you know how many lives they’ve saved? Two hundred dollars a car! wailed the manufacturers. And they brag about their air bags. Ask anyone who’s been in an auto accident lately if they’re not ready to plunk down the additional $200. Lite Guy Bob Bullock sent a zinger of a letter challenging my thesis that we would have been better off legislating this bill out in the open, instead of having a “done deal” negotiated by a few trial lawyer honchos. I will always yield to Bullock’s superior knowledge in reading the political terrain of the Lege; if he says a better deal couldn’t have been cut, a better deal couldn’t have been cut. But I ain’t in the deal-cutting bidness. I’m in the standing-up-for-folks-who-are always-getting-screwed bidness. The corporations have their lobby teams and their PACs and their slide presentations and their golf tournaments and their special one-on-one hired stringpullers who can sway a single vote … let someone else play the soul of sweet reason and compromise I’m just gonna stand out here and scream for what’s right. On the matter of assumed risk, Bullock and I, smokers both, are agreed.We know full well this weed is killing us. We hold no one else liable for our stupidity. But when I stared smoking at the age of 12 \(in hopes of stunting my growth take my word for it, ever even heard the word emphysema? The problem is not old smokers like Bullock and me; it’s the kids who are 12 now and are the targets of multimillion-dollar ad campaigns by the tobacco companies. If you want to legislate against tobacco, then legislate against tobacco, said the bill’s sponsor, but don’t tamper with the doctrine of assumed risk. Sounds good, but look at the record. Did the makers of the Dalkon shield stop making their product when they knew it was killing women? No, they had to get sued first. Same pattern in case after case after case. I wouldn’t say trial lawyers are exactly heroes in our society they have their own profit motive but if you’ve ever watched a trial lawyer take on a corporation and all its lawyers and hired experts and the corpora tion’s insurance company and all its lawyers and its hired experts, then you know the scales of justice are indeed out of whack. And they ain’t weighted in our direction. Deficit Redux And now the ball is in Congress’ court. The people seem ready to swallow this pill. We may not be happy campers, but by and large we seem ready to pay more and accept less with a big IF. If this plan works, if it really does cut the deficit, OK. But if it doesn’t work, if Washington can’t get it together this time, then I think our level of cynicism will become so corrosive that the country will be in real danger, the people ready to look to any demagogue with a quick fix. The biggest danger is that Congress will start pulling this package to pieces just to prove its own clout; we’ve already seen several Democratic senators and committee chairs making noises like old bulls. If they have already forgotten the level of disgust for their gridlock and games displayed by voters last year, they’ll get reminded quite harshly next year. If Congress wants to get into this package and put its own stamp on it, let it join the cutting some nice symbolic gesture, like cutting their own staffs 25 percent, followed by a pork-barrel hunt. Be interesting to see if Congress can root out at least one of the projects Clinton is reluctant to touch for political reasons, say the manned space station. Seems to me Clinton has already pulled off one major political coup: He floated the notion of an across-the-board hold on the cost of living adjustment in Social Security. There was predictable outrage and much merriment by insiders about Clinton being fool enough to touch the sacred “third rail” of American politics. Then Clinton pulled down his trial balloon and promptly sent up a smaller one. OK, what about a higher tax on Social Security recipients? And that sounded so much more reasonable than the first idea that everyone more or less said, “That’s not so bad.” So already he’s done what everybody said couldn’t be done: Touched Social Security, the ultimate entitlement. With this one on the table, the other entitlements are easier. If the Republicans are really keen on seeing to it that every new tax dollar is multiplied by spending cuts, fine. Let them have it. A country with four air forces can use some of that spirit. 0 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11 4.4…g0.4444K-‘41.1 ,”