Sunday, November 25, 2012

thank god for what workplace regulation we have

A few years back a friend of mine was talking about historical work he was doing that involved death records from New England in the 18th century. He said it was remarkable how many deaths were caused by things like tainted food or building collapses, fears that are incredibly remote to us today. They're remote because of regulation. People observed these preventable injuries and deaths and made a choice: to enforce requirements on behaviors which potentially endanger the lives or well-being of others. We in America eat food, take medications, enter public buildings, ride in vehicles, and undertake innumerable other activities with little or no fear because of regulation. That security and confidence represents something of a miracle, one we almost always forget or ignore.

Not everyone is so lucky. Tonight I read about a horrible tragedy in a textile factory in Bangladesh, where at least 112 workers have died from burns, smoke inhalation, heat, jumping to their deaths to escape the flames, and other horrible fates. It almost goes without saying that the building lacked emergency exits and other lifesaving requirements that can be enforced through regulation. But of course, those regulations increase the cost of doing business, and as we take it as an inalienable right to be able to buy pants for $20, regulations like that are inconvenient. Globalization simply cannot be responsibly understood without taking into account this deliberate avoidance of worker-protecting regulation. It's got a price, a price in human lives.

That we are overregulated is a truism in responsible, serious political circles. Many liberals seem desperate to push deregulation, under some sort of grand bargain scenario or simply because they have become convinced by the neoliberal notion that regulation does nothing but depress growth. Stories like this are essential to remind us of what a profound privilege it is to live in a society where there are rules that protect us everyday. Only those of us who sleep under the blanket of protection of those rules could ever underestimate their profound benefit to our lives.


Brett said...

Many liberals seem desperate to push deregulation, under some sort of grand bargain scenario or simply because they have become convinced by the neoliberal notion that regulation does nothing but depress growth.

It's more the kind of regulation. Yes to food and safety regulation, no to regulation that just protects existing players in a marketplace or exists just to constrict the supply (like licensing rules that conveniently grandfather in everybody who was working before the rule came in place, whether they meet it or not).

That's what you'll usually see from the more market-oriented liberals, like Matt Yglesias.

ryan said...

All regulation depresses growth. The question is whether a particular regulation achieves a sufficiently valuable end to make the extent to which it depresses growth worth doing.

Workers compensation? A regulation worth having. But the extent to which OSHA goes these days? Maybe not so much.

Licensing regimes for physicians and attorneys? Necessary to protect the public in what are ultimately fiduciary relationships. But for taxis and hairdressers? Starting to look a little corrupt.


Brett said...

The physician example is interesting, because I could see that changing in the next couple of decades. We might eventually be able to break up the work of a single doctor into a bunch of separate jobs done by technicians with computer and robotic assistance . . . or at least we will if licensing and the rules don't just kill that off, in favor of letting a smaller number of doctors do far more work while getting richer.

The taxi one is trickier than is usually let on. Unlicensed taxis can actually be quite dangerous (I read an essay pointing out that they're responsible for something like 80% of the stranger rapes that happen in the UK), but at the same time, you do see a lot of more or less naked protectionism from established taxi businesses (just look at the shifting regulatory environment of the DC Taxi Commission). Then, of course, there are the people who like existing restrictions and get rich off of them, like the owners of NYC's taxi medallions.

circadianwolf said...

Of course, those workers are in those factories in the first place because of state regulations (backed by violence) enforcing capital's privilege to control production. If those workers could make a living without being in those factories, I think we can safely assume the vast majority would. The problem state regulation exists to solve was itself created by the state.

Freddie said...

That is true.

ryan said...

Actually, I see the physician example being one of the last to resist the kind of mechanization change you're talking about. Everywhere we see this relentless attempt to reduce complex, prudential problems to simple, mechanistic flow charts.

It doesn't work.

What physicians do, fundamentally, is apply their professional judgment to a set of complex facts. There is no good way of reducing the human element from this, try as the bean counters might. Doing medicine by rote isn't doing medicine, and it's not treating patients as people but as widgets on an assembly line. Patients, by and large, adamantly do not want to be treated this way.

And the taxi example isn't tricky at all. Yes, we need to license cabs, because unlicensed cabs are a problem. The problem is strictly limiting the number of licenses to create some kind of municipally-sponsored cartel. There is absolutely no justification for the latter.

And there's the difference between physicians and lawyers on one hand and taxi drivers on the other. Anyone who goes to medical school or law school can become a physician or lawyer. True, there's some weeding elements there, but the state is not really in the practice of turning away otherwise-qualified professionals on anything like a regular basis. Taxi licenses, on the other hand, are allocated on a strict quota system, the licenses are transferable, and the only qualification seems to be having a clean driving record and the willingness to drive a car all day. Yet for no obvious reason there are more physicians than cab drivers, to say nothing of the number of lawyers.

Riddle me that.