Battle Declined

The President of the United States went to a funeral this week, to express his condolences for those killed in an explosion at the West Fertilizer Company, most of them first responders battling a fire that apparently caused several thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate to detonate, demolishing homes and schools in the area and leaving a crater in the ground nearly one hundred feet in diameter.

If the firefighters had known about the ammonium nitrate, their priority almost certainly would have been to organize an evacuation. But they did not know.

West Fertilizer is something of a poster child for the present state of what is casually referred to as ‘government regulation’, or rather the state to which it has devolved 30-odd years after Ronald Reagan famously declared that ‘government is the problem’, energizing his conservative disciples in a decades-long battle to de-fang and de-fund regulation and its enforcement. Libertarians who honestly believe all government interference is wrong may wish to ponder the consequences of a purely private-sector decision to store, without notice, enough hazardous material to cause an accidental explosion capable of registering 2.1 on the Richter scale, as this one did. And those who cry, “But they’ll be held accountable in the courts!” may also wish to ponder the fact that West Fertilizer is owned by Adair Grain, Incorporated. It is highly improbable that anyone involved can ever be held personally liable. And, in a laissez-faire world, I’m not sure what other kind of accountability matters.

But West Fertilizer also illustrates another consequence of chronic neglect in the field of regulation, which is the unmanageable and sometimes irreconcilable maze of interlocking rules and agencies. In this case alone: EPA. OSHA. DHS. DOT. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The Texas Department of State Health Services. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Texas Feed and Fertilizer Control Service. The City of West zoning board and planning commission, assuming they have them. The point is not that the complexities of modern regulation are unwarranted. The point is the complexity is poorly managed; and sometimes it appears deliberately so.

The President has another small task to perform this week, which is to sign into law a hurriedly-passed bill to allow the FAA to move money from airport improvements over to air traffic control, to end the furloughs of federally-employed air controllers which have caused irritating delays in airline travel, and more poignantly public complaint. While this may be the first time in recent memory that Congress has paid any attention to the public at large, there  is reason to believe that with a stroke of his pen President Obama is about to sign his final capitulation in the Republican war on regulation.

The sequester (or Tea-quester, as some would have it), was enacted as an across-the-board cut in federal spending. Leaving aside its recklessness in an economy still constrained by private debt deleveraging,  it was the result of a deadlock between two opposing political parties, and it could have been resolved in one of two ways: by using inexorably growing public pressure to force compromise; or by allowing doctrinaire conservatives to cherry-pick which parts of government will enjoy their favor, and which will be left to wither. Unaccountably, the President appears to have ducked the pressure and acquiesced in the second.

Somewhere in his monumental Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, historian Edward Gibbon once noted that “Civilization means fighting.” This is not the kind of thing technocrats like to think about, which is undoubtedly why so few of them are politicians. It is also said that politics isthe art of the possible”, yet I think this merely pretties up what Gibbon had to say, because what’s possible is not a given. It depends on your objectives, on where and when you’re willing to do battle. Because in the end, whether your weapons are spears or dollars or words, it is a battle.

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