Friday, April 1, 2011

Coffin Ships, Deregulation, and Al Gore

Samuel Plimsoll was born in Bristol, England, on February 10, 1824. He became a businessman, but of the sort who cared about his fellow humans. In his business, the coal trade, there was a dark secret. Ship owners found they could maximize their profits on their oldest vessels by stopping maintenance, overloading them with goods, using fewer sailors than was safe, and over-insuring them. A ship that made its voyage was profitable. A ship that sank was profitable too, because of the insurance payment. Never mind the dead sailors. Such ships were known as coffin or death ships. Plimsoll pleaded with the British Parliament to outlaw these practices. Parliament did nothing. Plimsoll ran for and was seated in Parliament in 1868. It took him until 1876 to get his Merchant Shipping Act passed. He is known to history as "the sailor's friend."

Regulation good, de-regulation bad? Democrats good, Republicans bad? Not so fast.

Regulations can be bad, often depending on your point of view. The devil is in the details, and the details, all too often in modern times, are written by corporate lawyers. Laws and regulations about business practices are yet more grist for the gruel of law.

Regulations can make people safer, but they can also kill beneficial industries by failing to take into account that a degree of danger is inherent when any human wakes up in the morning, and to some extent even when they sleep at night. Many regulations, however, are not about safety, but about some other government set goal. Regulating fishing, for instance, is (supposed to be) about preserving enough breeding fish each year so that fishing will be just as good next year, or ten years from now. Thus they should benefit business and workers alike.

Laws and regulations, like cholesterol, tend to accumulate and choke the life out of things at times, even if they are well-intentioned. As a public school board member in California I saw this effect. Over the decades whenever something went wrong at a public school the state legislature, or the office of education, or even the Federal government, wrote a law (usually added to the Education Code) in response. Often, to ensure compliance, some paperwork was added: an annual certification that the school complied with the regulation. Over the decades, to ensure compliance, which is necessary to get funding, the ratio of administrative support staff to teachers grew.

I have no problem with the idea of periodically purging unnecessary regulations. The problem is, who picks? Too often, business lobbyists choose to leave in regulations that help them fend off ruinous competition, while getting rid of regulations that protect workers, consumers, and the environment.

Which brings us to Al Gore, former Vice-president of the United States of America, now known as a flaming liberal because of his anti-global warming posturing. For no particular reason I started reading Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair's Al Gore: A User's Manual, printed back in 2000. The section I am in is how Gore led the deregulators when he was vice-president. He pushed the Clinton administration for REGO, his reinventing government program. It would please any Tea Party activist or corporate Republican. It was sold to the public as a waste-eliminator, but in fact opened the doors of government to business predators, while gutting departments that did useful public service [pages 172-187]. Gore topped this with his attack on the federal welfare system [pages 188-209]. Gore's ability to completely alienate any Democratic Party politician or voter who still believed in the New Deal or Great Society was the reason he lost his campaign to become President in 2000.

But people have short memories. Particularly, apparently, do voters. And journalists. So raise a glass to Samuel Plimsoll, one of the rare good politicians.

Remember, too, the glory that was Imperialist America, but don't expect the paychecks to be as good during our post-imperial decline and fall.

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