Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why free market fetishists are wrong.

As a Californian, my heart goes out to the people in China who have just been hit with a huge and deadly earthquake. One way to look at the situation is to say California has been lucky for about a century. The last quake in a populated area we've had that matched the size of yesterday's Chinese quake was San Francisco in 1906. But the numbers don't lie. When a quake over 7.0 hits in other countries, the death tolls will be in the tens of thousands. In California, the death toll will be in the tens or maybe the hundreds.

This picture tells the difference. Concrete with rebar. In California, we build to code and the codes have gotten tougher over the years. The major death scene in the 1989 Loma Prieta quake happened 60 miles from the epicenter where a stretch of double decker freeway built in the 1950s collapsed. If not for people leaving work early to watch the World Series, there could have been bumper to bumper gridlock on that stretch of freeway and the death toll could have been in the hundreds instead of an official count of 67, but it wouldn't have jumped to the thousands.

We have some free market fetishists in California. I know. One of my sisters was married to one for a while. One of them was governor for a while and then became president. But they are idiots. Ronald Reagan had a famous quote that the worst sentence anyone could ever hear was "We are from the government and we are here to help." Oh, how the conservatives love that one. Witty old Ronnie, the Great Communicator!

I'd like to shove a few hundred volts into his lifeless corpse, bring it back to the living long enough to say this. "Building inspectors, you stupid turd! Those pointy headed bureaucrats have saved thousands of lives and millions if not billions of dollars damage in the state where you were governor. They're from the government! They helped!"

It's not that God loves us more than the Chinese or the Armenians or the Iranians, unless that infinite love was sent in the form of building inspectors. It makes more sense to take the rational view and accept that the government has a vital role in a healthy economy and the free market is not the solution to every problem.

Go forth. Make sure the people hear the good news.


no_slappz said...

If China lacks government-mandated building codes, that's hardly the fault of the designers and engineeers. Meanwhile, China may have embraced some capitalist, market-oriented strategies, but the country is still under the thumb of a powerful central authority.

If the government of China mandates safety and quality standards matching those in the US, the citizens will comply. What choice do they have?

Meanwhile, safety standards imposed in the US are driven by insurance companies, the organizations that quantify the cost of catastrophe. The "margin of safety" concept taught to every design engineer in the US saves lives AND money, two factors of little concern to governments like that of Myanmar, Iran and many other dictatorships, tyrannies and brutal regimes.

With respect to governments, you could say that safety standards exist in an inversely proportional ratio to the degree of totalitarianism under which the country exists. Democracies have the highest safety standards because life has the highest value within them.

Of course our capacity to build safe and sturdy structures is not perfect. While you correctly claim that government building inspectors help to make the country a safer place, sometimes they lack the power to enforce common sense.

There was that problem in New Orleans where people were actually allowed to live BELOW sea level in a region regularly hit by hurricanes. If private insurance companies had been involved, no house would have been built in the Lower Ninth Ward unless it was on stilts and above the high water mark.

There's a reason only the federal government offers flood insurance. And there's a reason the coverage is limited.

Still, as bad as the flooding was, the same event in a less developed country would have resulted in many more deaths followed by no concerns about rebuilding.

Living in a free country means a person can hang a sword over his own head.

CDP said...

Very well said (detractors notwithstanding)

Karlacita! said...

Hey Slappy,

That was actually a well-thought out comment and not terribly snarky.

We must celebrate advances in humane behaviors, wherever we find them.

Huzzah to you, not quite so cranky one.

Matty Boy said...

Karla is more generous than I am. I don't grade on the curve. Several of no-slappz points are factually incorrect. Also if we accept is inverse proportional relation between respect for life and totalitarianism, the U.S. is like a struggling Eastern European country hoping to catch up with its richer and more open neighbors. Actually, Croatia's first derivative may be positive, while ours is either zero or negative.

Trolls are like speculators in unregulated markets, an unavoidable plague.

Karlacita! said...

Yeah - I've been doing some research on health care in the US, and hoowhee doggies, we so totally suck! So much for the "totalitarianism means bad, capitalism means gud" idea.

Our life expectancy is like 30th or 40th in the world, near destroyed Eastern European countries. Our infant and maternal mortality rates are ginormous, and our dental health, which was up for a while there, is plummeting again.

But my teeth are nice and white, like a capitalist's should be, so I don't care about anyone else.

As for Slappy, I mean, the dude actually stayed on the topic. This is a cause for celebration. Even trolls can rehabilitate themselves.

Little steps, gentle pressure.

dguzman said...

Quality 'splainin', Matty Boy.

As for Slappy's points, I kinda chuckled when I read this one: "With respect to governments, you could say that safety standards exist in an inversely proportional ratio to the degree of totalitarianism under which the country exists. Democracies have the highest safety standards because life has the highest value within them." Where does that leave us, then? We pretend to have a democracy, yet the presidential elections were rigged in 2000 and probably 2004. OSHA's regulations have been pretty much stripped; just take a stroll around a Home Depot if you need proof of that. Our government obviously views only certain lives as having "the highest value"---minorities and anyone earning under a few million a year need not apply.