A dispatch for the “Arguing the World” blog at Dissent magazine.
Published in Dissent.
I feel that this is an opportune time to write in praise of fire codes and building inspectors.
Natural disasters are not natural. In large part, they are products of poverty, neglect, and exploitation. Certainly, this was the case in Haiti. When that country was hit by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January 2010, poorly constructed buildings collapsed and horrific mudslides fell from deforested mountains. Some 316,000 people died.
The earthquake that hit Japan on March 11 was a magnitude 9.0 quake—releasing hundreds of times more energy than the Haiti quake. That its epicenter was offshore lessened its direct impact, but it, too, exacted a fearsome toll, mostly through the tsunami set off by the quake. Current assessments predict that the death count could easily exceed 10,000, especially since 30,000 people remain unaccounted for. But thankfully that is an order of magnitude smaller than the loss of life seen in Haiti.
Vigilant regulation and careful public preparation for emergencies went far in making the destruction and death in Japan much less ghastly than it might have been. Putting aside questions about safety at the country’s nuclear power plants (as of this writing, reports of possible catastrophes at these plants continue to grow more alarming), Japan’s homes and skyscrapers did not crumble in the manner of Haiti’s. As the New York Times noted, “Japan’s Strict Building Codes Saved Lives.”
The paper reported, “In Japan, where earthquakes are far more common than they are in the United States, the building codes have long been much more stringent on specific matters like how much a building may sway during a quake.” Furthermore, “Japan’s ‘massive public education program’ could in the end have saved the most lives, said Rich Eisner, a retired tsunami preparedness expert…”
Massive public education programs and government regulation are not very popular in the United States these days, or at least that’s the impression you’d get from watching cable television. But Japan’s example shows that we are better off when not everything is left to the unfettered market. And it demonstrates that those public sector workers, much maligned by Fox News, actually serve some vital social functions.
In our own country, the building safety and fire code standards we take for granted did not come without a fight. This is something we do especially well to remember this month, the one-hundredth anniversary of a most unnatural disaster: the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. As Peter Dreier and Donald Cohen write in the New Republic:
“A century ago, on March 25, 1911, 146 garment workers, most of them Jewish and Italian immigrant girls in their teens and twenties, perished after a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Even after the fire, the city’s businesses continued to insist they could regulate themselves, but the deaths clearly demonstrated that companies like Triangle, if left to their own devices, would not concern themselves with their workers’ safety. Despite this business opposition, the public’s response to the fire and to the 146 deaths led to landmark state regulations.”
Dreier and Cohen are coordinators of an excellent initiative known as the Cry Wolf Project. The project has set out to scour the historical archives to identify “consumer, environmental and health and safety reforms that were opposed by industry and show how their predictions of economic catastrophe failed to materialize.” In the case of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire:
“On April 6, [1911,] 30,000 New Yorkers marched—and hundreds of thousands more lined the march’s route—behind empty hearses to memorialize the fire’s victims. Numerous rallies, broadsides and editorials called for legislative action—ranging from fire safety codes to restrictions on child labor. In response to the outcry, New York Governor John Alden Dix created the Factory Investigating Commission, a pioneering body with broad subpoena powers and teams of investigators, led by two savvy Democratic politicians, state Assemblyman Al Smith and state Senator Robert F. Wagner…
But the garment manufacturers, the Real Estate Board, and the bakery and cannery industry groups sought to stymie the Commission. The real-estate interests opposed city fire codes. After the Fire Department ordered warehouses to install sprinklers, the Protective League of Property Owners held a meeting to denounce the mandate, angrily charging the city with forcing owners to use “cumbersome and costly” equipment.
A representative of the Associated Industries of New York insisted that regulations would mean “the wiping out of industry in this state.” Mabel Clark, vice president of the W.N. Clark Company, a canning corporation, opposed any restrictions on child labor. “I have seen children working in factories, and I have seen them working at home, and they were perfectly happy,” she declared.
Terence McGuire, president of the Real Estate Board, summed up the business argument against regulation. “To my mind this is all wrong,” he declared. “The experience of the past proves conclusively that the best government is the least possible government.” The board warned that new laws would drive “manufacturers out of the City and State of New York.“”
Needless to say, their claims were bunk:
“The New York Times reported in July 1914, that, “[n]otwithstanding all the talk of a probable exodus of manufacturing interests, the commission has not found a single case of a manufacturer intending to leave the State because of the enforcement of the factory laws.” New York’s Seventh Avenue remained the headquarters of the nation’s garment industry for decades until production gradually moved south and overseas after World War II.”
Of course, the struggle is not over. Child labor and fire safety standards remain scarce in too many of the factories in the global South that now manufacture the consumer goods we enjoy.
Even with regard to wealthy nations, there are ways in which we invite more man-made disasters. These range from inadequate safeguards for nuclear power (many question whether nuclear energy can ever be safely regulated—and thus whether such facilities should be built in the first place) to our failure to take action around global climate change, which the Daily Mail tells us “could spark more volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis.” As Hurricane Katrina showed, these emergencies often bring to the fore very unnatural divisions of race and class. In these respects and others, there is still much to do.
Yet, amid our fresh concern for those in Japan and our ongoing determination that tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire not be repeated, we can be grateful for measures that have been undertaken in the interest of public safety. We can be thankful for those who insisted on regulations in the past that, today, are saving lives.