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The Value of Public Service

We hear so much about ‘big government’ burdening ‘job creators’ with excessive ‘red tape’ and ‘bureaucracy,’ but that rhetoric isn’t new. Even in the decades after the New Deal, when workers had more power than they do today, and the government was seen as society’s protector, private profit too often conflicted with the public interest.

Take the sleeping drug thalidomide, which caused thousands of infant deaths and birth deformities across Europe in the early 1960s. Before being linked to those defects, the drug reached the desk of Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, a medical officer at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dr. Kelsey saw something odd in the drug trials performed by the pharmaceutical company that manufactured thalidomide, and requested more tests. The company, with profits at stake, bullied her to approve the drug, even threatening a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, evidence from Europe began to pour in that thalidomide was toxic if taken during pregnancy. Thanks to Dr. Kelsey, thousands of U.S. babies avoided tragedy.

Last week, Dr. Kelsey passed away at the age of 101 after a life of shaping our modern laws regulating pharmaceuticals. Her story defies the rhetoric of our current politics of austerity: that efficiency and speed are always best, and that private profit is always compatible with the public interest. Against the pharmaceutical company’s pressure, she studied the science and demanded more testing. Lives were on the line, and she didn’t budge.

We deserve public workers and officials like Dr. Kelsey that proudly take responsibility for the public good. ‘Red tape’ and ‘bureaucracy’ can save lives, especially in essential public services, like health, education, public safety, and infrastructure.

After stopping thalidomide, Dr. Kelsey could’ve walked through the revolving door into a career with Big Pharma, but she stayed at the FDA, retiring in 2005 at 90 years old. Now that’s a life of public service.