Monday, June 19, 2017

This is really how they think, isn't it?

Apparently, this is really how conservatives think. Or at least how one Megan McArdle thinks.

Beware of Blaming Government for London Tower Fire

Perhaps safety rules could have saved some residents. But at what cost to others' lives? There's always a trade-off. Oh, fuck you! Lives could have been saved, but at what cost? What kind of inhuman monster asks a question like that?
A few days ago fire swept through Grenfell Tower, a large apartment building in London. It’s not yet known what caused the fire, and we aren’t conclusively sure how it spread so quickly, consuming the entire 24-story building. Nor is it known how many died in the fire; as of Friday, the count is at least 30.
What we do know is that there are ways to help control the spread of fire in apartment buildings, such as sprinkler systems. This has the makings of a scandal for Prime Minister Theresa May’s beleaguered government. Her immigration minister, Brandon Lewis, was formerly the housing minister. He declined to require developers to install sprinklers. The Independent quotes him as telling Parliament in 2014: “We believe that it is the responsibility of the fire industry, rather than the Government, to market fire sprinkler systems effectively and to encourage their wider installation. … The cost of fitting a fire sprinkler system may affect house building -- something we want to encourage -- so we must wait to see what impact that regulation has.”

Now at this point, any sane, reasonable person would conclude the column with a call for the ouster of May and Lewis and an appeal to make fire safety systems mandatory in all housing developments.

But no. This is not a sane, rational person. This is a conservative.

People who died in the Grenfell fire might be alive today if regulators had required sprinkler systems. This does not play well for the Tories.

How this plays for the Tories, or any other political party, should hardly be relevant when you are talking about the deaths of dozens of innocent people.

But before we start hanging them in effigy, there are a couple of things we should consider. The first is that, even if the regulation had passed, and required existing developers to retrofit sprinklers into older buildings, Grenfell Tower might not have gotten a sprinkler system before the fire occurred. Regulations are not implemented like instant coffee; they take time to formulate, and further time for businesses to comply. All the political will in the world cannot conjure up enough sprinkler systems, and sprinkler-system installers, to instantly transform a nation’s housing stock.

Really? You don't think they could have complied between 2014 and now? You think three years is not enough time to install life-saving sprinkler systems?

This, however, is only a quibble; even if Grenfell Tower could not have been saved, there are surely other buildings where fires will soon occur that would benefit from sprinklers. Must we wait for those deaths before we can say that his was a bad calculation?
Well, no. But we should wait until we can establish that it was actually a bad calculation.

Well, let's see. . .

. . .  They chose to not do a thing. People died because they didn't do that thing. . .
Yup, you got yourself a bad calculation there.

It may sound heartless to discuss life-saving measures as a calculation. But the fact is that we all make these sorts of calculations every day, about ourselves and others. We just don’t like to admit that we’re doing it.

Consider the speed at which many of you drove to work this morning. I’m sure you’re all splendid, careful drivers. Nonetheless, when a vehicle is being piloted at 50 or 60 miles an hour, the margin of error for avoiding an accident is pretty small. To drive a car even at 5 miles per hour is to accept a small risk of killing oneself and others. To drive at 50 miles per hour is to accept a much higher risk of doing so. It’s a calculation: risk versus reward.

Yes, and that is why our government, back when it was sane, put in rules requiring safety belts, air bags, bumpers, etc so as to minimize the risk.  Also we have speed limits, licensing requirements, and police and highway patrol to enforce safety by ticketing those who drive in an unsafe manner. Does this eliminate risk? Of course not. But at least we're trying. At least we're not saying "I think the seat belt manufacturers should just try to encourage automakers to install their product. and convince motorists to use them." Or "the auto insurers should just encourage drivers to maintain a safe speed."  We don't let the car companies decide whether or not they want to spend the extra few bucks to include safety features.

In the U.S., tens of thousands of people were killed in auto accidents last year. We could probably eliminate most of those deaths if we simply made sure that no one ever piloted their personal vehicle above some prudent speed -- say, 25 mph -- which would reduce both the likelihood of crashes occurring, and the damage any crashes would do.

Are you willing to make that trade-off? To avert 40,000 deaths a year, all you have to do is move closer to work, take public transportation (where available), or spend a lot more time in the car.
Americans have made that choice: Nope, not worth it. We are manifestly not willing to exchange personal convenience for lower auto fatalities. Nor, as far as I am aware, is anyone anywhere else. Government sets much higher speed limits -- speeds that are still quite deadly! -- and most drivers opt for even deadlier speeds. Every speeding driver knows, at some level, that what they’re doing is dangerous; they simply care more about what the boss will say when they’re late than they do about the increased risk of killing other people.

Which is why those decisions should not be left up to individuals. That's why we have traffic laws. Are they enough to keep us safe? No. Of course not. But they do a hell of a lot better job than letting every motorist decide for himself what his speed should be or how closely he should be allowed to follow the car in front of him, or whether to use turn signals, etc.

Now, I won’t defend the folks who go 90 in a 50 mph zone.  But in less extreme cases, the broader calculation is probably correct. Auto accidents cost lives. But automobile transport has also saved a lot of lives, by enabling the economic growth that has made us richer and healthier.

Um, source?
On what are you basing that claim?
And would our economy be hurt in some way by lowering speed limits?  Or if more people started taking trains and buses to work?
And how does economic growth make us healthier? Especially if that growth is tied to CO-spewing automobiles?

When the cost is as personal, as glaring and obvious, as restricting every car to a snail’s pace, we can see that not all safety trade-offs are worth it. However, when the cost seems to be borne by someone else, we suddenly become safety absolutists: no price is too great to pay.

Ah, the straw man argument. Classic conservative "technique." If people want builders to have to install sprinkler systems, that's the same as wanting them to spend untold zillions of dollars on any ludicrous over-the-top safety measure that could be imagined.

Unfortunately, “other peoples’ money” has a way of ultimately coming out of our own pockets. If it costs more to build buildings, then rents will rise.

Yes. No one is unaware of this. Just like the price of a car is slightly increased by the inclusion of airbags and safety belts. Everyone knows this.

People will be forced to live in smaller spaces, perhaps farther away. Some of them, in fact, may be forced to commute by automobile, and then die in a car accident. We don’t see those costs in the same way as we see a fire’s victims; we will never know the name of the guy who was killed in a car accident because he had to live far from work because rents rose because regulators required sprinkler systems. But that is a distinction for public opinion, not for good policy making. Good regulations would take into account the proximate and distant effects.

Yes, we certainly shouldn't have a common-sense safety rule because of the off chance of a butterfly effect rippling outward and resulting in the death of an unnamed hypothetical motorist! Because if safety measures are required, obviously, the rent would just skyrocket, forcing people to move far away and drive to work, because it's not as if the cost of the sprinkler system would be borne by a large number of tenants over the course of many many months!

Back to the case at hand: Maybe sprinkler systems should be required in multifamily dwellings. It’s completely possible that the former housing minister made the wrong call. But his comment indicates he was thinking about the question in the right way -- taking seriously the fact that safety regulations come at a cost, which may exceed their benefit. Such calculations have to be made, no matter how horrified the tut-tutting after the fact.


That's the "right way" to think about things? Worrying about the price tag for saving human lives? You're seriously going to sit there and say putting a price on the lives of human beings is the "right way" to think?

And what you call the  the "tut-tuttimg" after the fact is the sobs of people who have lost parents, sons, daughters, friends that were apparently just dollar amounts on a spreadsheet and not worth the cost of saving in your sick conservative logic.

Yes, "tut-tut" indeed.

And he is certainly right about one thing: When it comes to many regulations, it is best to leave such calculations of benefit and cost to the market, rather than the government.

Seriously? Because they did that and now at least 80 people are dead.  People. Dead. Not embryos, people. Actual living, breathing people with families and friends and hopes and dreams are dead because your goddammned market didn't think the cost of protecting them made sense for the bottom line. 

A hand appearing to stick a poster beneath two missing persons posters picturing a young woman and girl.

Heck of a job, Free Market!

It’s possible that by allowing large residential buildings to operate without sprinkler systems, the British government has prevented untold thousands of people from being driven into homelessness by higher housing costs.

Sure, and it's possible that the vomiting caused by reading this column might cause me to lose weight and avoid a heart attack! Anything is possible. Why not deal with what we actually know to have actually happened? People died for the cause of saving money.

And how much do you think that rents would have been driven up by requiring safety measures anyway? According to the Guardian UK:

Some estimates suggest that the additional cost of fitting the fire-resistant product would have been as little as £5,000.
. . . in 2012 the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association (BAFSA) commissioned a report on the economics of fire sprinkler retrofit in residential apartment blocks of this type. The study concluded that fire sprinklers could be retrofitted with tenants in place at a cost of about £1150 per flat. (source)

 At a cost of £1150 per flat, the sprinklers could be completely paid off in one year by raising rent £96 per month. Or rent could go up a mere £48 per month and the sprinklers would be paid for in two years. If you paid them off over 5 years, you're looking at less than £20 per month increase in rent. Who is being "driven into homelessness" by that?

Grenfell Tower, of course, was public housing, which changes the calculation somewhat. And yet, even there, trade-offs have to be made. The government spends money on a great number of things, many of which save lives. Every dollar it spends on installing sprinkler systems cannot be spent on the health service, or national defense, or pollution control. Would more lives be saved by those measures or by sprinkler systems in public housing? It’s hard to say.

Ah, the false choice. More classic conservative argument.

Because we all know that there is no way for the government to increase the amount of revenue it has to spend. No, hard choices must be made, whether to spend money on public safety, or to continue following the US into disastrous, pointless wars that cost millions of pounds. I mean, they both save lives, right? Fire sprinklers and fire-retardent panels save lives in apartment buildings, invading and bombing Muslim countries saves, um . . . lives. . . uh, somehow, I think? Right?

Regulatory decisions are never without costs, and sometimes their benefits are invisible.

Yes, invisible. Like you don't actually see buildings not burning down, people not being killed. That's how it works. When regulations are effective, you don't see anything. It's like they say about offensive linemen in American football: If they're doing a good job, you don't notice them. They only get mentioned when they miss a block and allow the quarterback to be crushed or a runner to lose yardage. That's how regulations are. When they work, you don't notice anything. You just eat a meal and don't get food poisoning.

Or you go fishing and you don't catch any three-eyed mutant fish. 

I'm not sure you're making the strong anti-regulation  case you think you are.