Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In praise of folly: you get what you pay for.

         There is an old category of wise saying: you get what you pay for. Or as the Romans put it: caveat emptor - let the buyer beware. Or again: don't look a gift horse in the mouth. Our contemporary dominant ideology refuses to admit this wisdom. By cutting "bureaucratic fat" - government services - neoconservative ideologues hope to stimulate the economy by making the rich richer while contributing even less to the common good. The (obviously) self-serving formula is that since "business is more efficient than government" (an unproven premise), real wealth will "trickle down" to the lower levels of society at a lesser cost than inefficient government bureaucracy could provide equivalent services. Also known as The Golden Shower..

          There are many unexamined presuppositions in this bit of neocon ideology: why, for example, how did government end up doing the things neocons want to privatize? Perhaps government ended up providing the service because it 1- was needed (health care, education, prisons, commercial and safety regulations, highways, defense, potable water,..) and 2- private enterprise was found either incapable or unwilling to provide it effectively. In other words, it got dumped on government exactly because the private sector could not do an adequate job. If this historical perspective is indeed still correct we should expect to find more and more private - public initiatives failing to meet the terms of their contracted engagements. Services will be deficient in terms of quality, cost, or availability. And this is exactly the pattern we have seen emerge..

          In some cases, such as education, health care, and safety regulations, we are discovering that the costs incurred after budget cutting are actually greater than the saving obtained by "cutting fat from the bureaucracy". We have become as our grannies used to say, "penny wise and pound foolish". Consider the tragic case of the Lac Mégantic train wreck, for evidence:

          In recent decades, both Liberal and Conservative governments have set their compasses by the dominant USA inspired Neoconservative or Free Market Ideology. Government deregulated and privatized the railroads, selling off national rail lines and cutting the number of federal rail inspectors. In addition, government began issuing safety "guidelines" to rail companies. In practice, this meant the rail companies were more or less free to implement these guidelines any way they liked. In the deregulated climate of the last three decades this also meant that corners got cut. Profit not service or safety became the number one priority. Meanwhile government, due to the Free Market ideology they embraced, grew compliant and even complacent about the corner cutting. The actual cost of this corner cutting, it now appears, will be a lot steeper than Free Market ideologues foresaw. 

          An early July morning, 2013, Lac Mégantic, Québec: an unmanned freight train carrying crude oil plows into the town center at 1 am in the morning, derailing and engulfing the town center in a river of burning crude oil. The fiery holocaust burned approximately 50 innocent people to death, inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars of economic damage, destroyed sites of historic value and caused immense environmental damage (we are only just starting to find out about that!). It also revealed the intrinsic flaws of an ecologically unsound and now (obviously) failing industrial system of production.

            In a backhanded admission that they got things terribly wrong we read that the feds have released six new rules based on "common sense" which, if they had been in place, would have made it very unlikely that the Lac Mégantic disaster would have happened. That's wonderful to know that 6 simple steps - that cost nothing or close to it - could indeed have prevented the loss of about fifty lives and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic loss. But why the hell weren't they in operation the night of terror? Penny wise, pound foolish..

           Thus, we learn just how lax things have really become in Neocon Lalalotus Land. The government, if I understand correctly, does not actually know for sure (and had to ask!) if Montréal Maine Atlantic rail had insurance sufficient to cover such an event.

           As stated above, "penny wise, pound foolish" is a stupid philosophy to live by when viewed from a utilitarian perspective. It becomes positively immoral, and morally unacceptable, when lives are placed in danger. Once again, the death toll in the Lac Mégantic conflagration is nearly 50, an exceedingly heavy toll in a community of 6,000. What cost do you place on human life..

          According to a recent Montréal Gazette article, 5.7 million litres of crude are still missing and not accounted for: they are in the soil and water of Lac Mégantic and environs. If these figures turn out to be correct this may the biggest oil spill in North America outside of seafloor well blowouts. Decontamination will be a big job, a complex job and a long job which, of course, means a costly job - hence the importance of assuring that rail transporters and rail lines carry adequate insurance, duh..

            Why did we elect these people? That is the question I imagine historians and thesis students in the future scratching their heads in wonderment over.. Why?.. Why, what were those people back then thinking, did they think, were they capable of thinking?..

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