Downsizing, Chlorine, and Us

Reading the New York Times article about the train wreck and chlorine gas release in South Carolina, a number of thoughts crossed my mind.

First, I noted that the Times has been writing about the terrible state of our rail system and the inability of the federal government to oversee it. And now this - nine dead at last count, plus injuries and the evacuation of a town.

The second thought was the questions. Why was there a wreck? Whether this is the latest in the pattern of errors and poor oversight that has been causing train accidents all over the country remains to be seen. Maybe it was just a freak accident.

But that leads to the next question: why was chlorine gas being transported in a container that couldn't withstand a crash anyway? Aren't there rules about this? Is anyone monitoring rail carriers to ensure that they are operating safely?

And that leads to the third thought: this is what we get when we decide that our primary national value is keeping the government (and the health and safety of citizens) from interfering with profit. The mantra of the GOP has been that private enterprise will save us all, and the government needs to let corporations do their thing.

Of course, their thing is maximizing profits, and nothing else. That's what corporations were designed to do: provide a structure for business operations that makes it possible to raise capital to invest in projects, and then extract the maximum profit from them.

As such, they are an incredibly useful kind of business organization, and have accomplished some very good things for us. Of course, when you create a profit-making machine, common sense says that you have to set parameters for it and control it. A profit-maximizing machine will not spend money to protect the lives of citizens. If there's a cost to accidentally killing people, that is just a piece of data to go into a calculation to determine the appropriate amount to spend on safety.

Remember the exploding Ford Pintos way back when? This is one of the classic stories of business. Ford calculated what it would cost to fix them all, versus the expected payouts for the deaths and injuries they caused. It was cheaper to make the payouts, so Ford didn't try to fix the Pinto. It was only when cases went to court and the awards were far larger than Ford expected that they realized there was a problem with this way of thinking.

If this sounds like a rant against corporations, it's not. Being mad at corporations for putting profit first is like being mad at your cat for scratching things. Cats scratch things because they have to (to keep their claws shorter - if they don't do it, it causes them physical pain). Corporations put profit first because that's what they were designed to do. Corporations that don't are punished by the market. Corporate executives who don't are punished by their boards. They are doing exactly what we should expect them to do.

I suspect that if you asked people in Republican South Carolina i they think that the government should set standards for rail safety and vigorously enforce them, you'd get a lot yesses. Unfortunately, when those folks vote, they vote for people whose goal is to minimize the power of government to regulate business activities. It's a bit melodramatic - but not fundamentally untrue - to point out that these folks are voting for chlorine gas clouds in towns in South Carolina (and everywhere else).

It's not surprising that corporations give money to candidates who they think will be less likely to trouble them with pesky safety regulations. What is surprising is that the GOP has been so successful at getting everyday Americans to follow along. Whenever I hear a working class Republican voter talking about how the government should not interfere with business, I marvel at it. Here's someone who should be concerned about workplace safety standards, about what's in their air and water, about their job security selflessly setting all that aside to look out for the needs of those poor victimized chemical companies, manufacturing giants, and investment banks. It's downright heartwarming!

Sarcasm aside, it's an amazing triumph of persuasion for conservatives. They've managed to make a religion out of the free market, and create an environment in which commonsense regulation is viewed as some kind of socialist plot. And they've gotten the people who are most likely to be the victims of uncontrolled profit-maximizing machines to support them enthusiastically.

It will be interesting to see how well this holds up as more jobs get outsourced, more prescription drugs kill people, more trains crash, and more toxic chemicals are dumped into our communities.

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