Meant to talk about this sooner, but life and work got in the way.
Anyway, I want to talk about the other big explosion that happened last month.
If it had happened any other time, the explosion in West, Texas would have been the news story of the week, maybe several. How often does a whole damn factory just blow up like that? Unfortunately (for several reasons), it happened the same week that a couple of douchebags decided to blow up something famous in a twisted mixture (though we’re still not sure what proportions) of Columbine and the Ft. Hood Shootings.
The American attention span may be short, but it is focused. When we’re paying attention to something, we don’t like to be distracted. In the Boston Marathon Bombings, we had the kind of drama we love: straightforward villains striking at the unquestionably innocent, on the run from the Righteous Wrath of America.
Thrilling as all get out, of course, and everyone was able to use it to find validation for their particular hobbyhorse for a few days. Personally, I’m glad that it turned out the bombers were white as well as Muslim, and that their “philosophy” turned out to be an incoherent Jihad-flavored mishmash that no one knows quite what to do with. The Muslims of this country do not need any more harassment than they already get.
So while all this action-movie excitement was going on, not many people paid a lot of attention to the explosion in West, Texas. I know I didn’t: industrial accident…terrible, terrible…put it in the mental file marked “Train Derailments, Bridge Collapses, Car Crashes, Chemical Spills and Other Random Shit That Happens” and return to the thrilling drama unfolding in Boston.
Then, as the action movie in Boston wrapped up and I started to learn more about what happened in West, Texas, I started to care a bit more.
First, I saw this. If you don’t want to bother to follow the link and read the article, just look at the map at the top of this post. The fertilizer plant was right across the street from a Middle School and a playground. If school had been in session, there’d be a lot more than 14 people dead, and they’d be kids.
Then I learned that last year, the plant had stored 1350 times the amount of explosive ammonium nitrate that should have triggered oversight by the DHS. Did they notify anybody? Were there any inspections? Nope.
Finally, I saw this, and I got well and truly pissed off. They built a chemical plant in town, across the street from a school, they stuffed it and over-stuffed it with explosive chemicals until it was essentially a building-sized bomb, 14 people are dead, hundreds are injured, the town is leveled and they only ever bought $1 million worth of fucking insurance?!
This is what it looks like when you get rid of all those business-killing regulations, people. Business is sociopathic. It only cares about maximizing profits, and in that purpose it will go to any length that the law allows (and if the law forbids something, but that law is not enforced, then the law allows it). Safety measures are just more corners to be cut.
And of course, no small number of business owners are sociopathic as well.
Are you thinking of your Uncle Bob who runs his own garage and thus gives five guys the means to feed their families? You shouldn’t be (or maybe you should; Uncle Bob might be dumping waste oil in the river out back, paying his mechanics less than they’re worth because he’s the only game in town, or “joking” that the sole female mechanic would be better-paid if she’d just give him a blowjob now and then. Sometimes the only difference between Regular Folks and The Big Boys is the number of people with the power to tell them “no”.). Think instead of Mitt Romney or the Koch Brothers. These are people who consider it not just foolish but irresponsible – immoral – to do anything less than squeeze every penny out of a business. Anything that gets in the way of that is an attack on their value system, and thus them personally. Environmental regulations aren’t things that protect the air people breathe and the water people drink, they’re an overreaching government adding extra steps and expenses (unless the fine is less than the cost of compliance, in which case you just pay that instead…if you get caught). Safety regulations aren’t things that keep people alive and unmaimed, they’re nanny-state intrusion. Employees aren’t…well, they aren’t the actual substance of the company, and they’re not people who need a livelihood. They’re expenses. Numbers on a balance sheet. And if the overreaching nanny state and the union thugs object to you treating them like that, well, just relocate to somewhere more pro-business.
(You might get the impression that these people just hate being told what to do in their little fief, and you would not be wrong.)
A lot of this country has come to accept this narrative. Personally, I think there’s a bit of Battered Person Syndrome involved in that: “Maybe if we be nicer to them…maybe if we stop bothering them with taxes and regulations and just…be good, maybe then they’ll bring the jobs back, or at least stop taking them away!”
Others just, well, believe it. I’ve mentioned before how Americans have created our own nobility out of the Rich.
If the explosion in West, Texas had taken place any other week, it might have changed that. Just look at the Sandy Hook shooting; for years now, the argument over gun control in this country had largely been settled: there wasn’t going to be any. After every high-profile shooting, we liberals groused a little bit and the general public would usually agree that Something Should Be Done, but nothing ever really came of it.
Then a vicious man-child in Sandy Hook killed a kindergarten with an AR-15, and the conversation has started again for real. Despite some early victories, gun lobbyists are getting frustrated: it’s not going away this time, why won’t it go away? Politicians, afraid of a backlash if they vote for gun control measures, are finding that it hurts them to vote against them.
By the same token, if our attention hadn’t been occupied by the action movie in Boston, it might have changed the discussion about business in this country. We might have paused in our race to the bottom and remembered that the only prize waiting at the end of that race is this. And this. We might even…not to get too crazy here, but just maybe…we might have admitted we went a bit too far during forty years of de-regulation and put some controls back in place.
But none of that happened. There’s no soul-searching, no arguments in the media or halls of power. Maybe it was the timing, like I’ve been saying. Maybe if it had happened a different week, everything would have been different.
Or maybe it just wasn’t enough. Maybe 14 people dead, hundreds injured, a town destroyed and a company that’s clearly not going to do anything about it are just not enough. Maybe that’s all we’ve come to expect of business in this country. We know that the biggest financial crash since the Thirties wasn’t enough.
Makes you wonder if anything ever will be.