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After the London Inferno, a Question For Laissez-faire Zealots: Is a Human Life Worth No More Than $100? 

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If British reports are to be believed, the Grenfell Tower inferno in central London might have been averted for a cost of a mere $6,000 — or a little more than $100 for each of the 58 unfortunates who, on the best estimate available this weekend, perished in the disaster.

According to the London Daily Mail,  when the tower was recently renovated, builders opted for a cladding material so inappropriate that it is rated “flammable” in Germany and its use in tall buildings in even lightly regulated America is banned. The attraction was a saving of a mere 10 percent. On the Mail’s numbers that added up  to a total saving compared to a safe material of £5,000 — equal to a little more than $6,000.

Such is the dystopia that deregulation, British-style, has wrought — a dystopia whose excesses are now finally coming to be widely recognized by voters and elected leaders alike. Indeed the Grenfell disaster may prove nothing short of a watershed in the history of deregulation. Certainly the implications are likely to go far beyond merely tightening fire safety laws.

As a young financial journalist in London in the 1970s, I witnessed the early days of the UK’s deregulation fashion. The British economy in those days was arguably much too heavily regulated and certainly something terrible was wrong. What focused minds particularly was huge trade deficits. In 1974, for instance, the current account deficit — the current account is the widest and most meaningful measure of trade — hit 3.8 percent of GDP. That was an unprecedentedly bad number for any major First World nation in peace time, and, on the strength of lectures from various ivory-tower economists, an overly intrusive state was identified as the key problem. Thus began a radical effort to get the state off the backs of small and large businesses alike. 

That the effort was misconceived is now becoming widely apparent. What is inarguable is that if deregulation was supposed to transform the UK into an export powerhouse (and in the process reclaim export sales lost to the Germans and Japanese), that development is not apparent in the numbers. The truth is that the current account deficit last year, for instance,  was a devastating 4.3 percent. 

Of more political significance is that there has long been widespread discontent among voters about what deregulation and privatizationjawsofdragon have done to, for instance, the UK’s once world-leading National Health Service (NHS). Thatcherite efforts to organize internal markets in the NHS have consistently generated more heat than light. Now the Grenfell disaster has finally brought into sharp focus what Thatcherism has done more generally. To say the least it is clear that where the public’s safety is concerned, trusting everything to the profit motive has come up short. 

In the words of the British politician David Lammy the inferno was a case of “corporate manslaughter.” Although he has not been specific about who he is accusing, several entities evidently have a lot of explaining to do. 

This includes most obviously the borough council of Kensington and Chelsea, owner of the doomed building, which provided public housing for an estimated 600 people. Also at the center of the  storm is Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO), an independent firm that was deputed by the council to take over day-to-day management of the building in the 1990s. Then there is Rydon Construction, which KCTMO called in to oversee major renovations and which must answer for a subcontractor’s choice of cladding material. 

in the months ahead we can expect the various players to argue about who was ultimately responsible. But that is really the point: deregulation hopelessly diffuses responsibility and fuzzes up the clear chain of accountability that existed in pre-Thatcherite days.

On grounds of scale alone the inferno is likely to be long remembered. Beyond its scale, however, the disaster may prove highly consequential for its timing. It comes just as disenchantment with deregulation seems to be approaching critical mass among the Conservative Party’s public intellectuals.  So-called Red Tories, who combine respect for order and tradition with a compassionate society, have been on the rise for a decade. The concept is said to have been pioneered by Benjamin Disraeli in the 1870s and both David Cameron, who led the Tories from 2005 to 2016, and his successor Theresa May are often considered to be sympathetic. The Red Tories’ twenty-first century resurgence can be traced at least as far back as the 2007-2008 financial crisis, which many Britons blame on excessive deregulation. More recently another aspect of deregulation that has come in for widespread denunciation has been so-called zero-hours contracts. Under such contracts, employers are not required to guarantee workers any minimum number of working hours. Many critics consider the concept to have gutted workers’ bargaining power.  The concept’s unpopularity is considered to have been a significant factor propelling a rise in the Labor Party’s vote in the recent General Election.

The Grenfell disaster’s historic significance is not lessened by the seriousness of the alleged culpability of key actors. David Lammy, a Labor MP who served as minister for innovation under Prime Minister  Gordon Brown, is not alone in suggesting criminality. According to Rachel Adamson, an expert on British regulatory law, the police, the fire service, and other government agencies are likely to consider criminal charges.

Most suggestive is the evidence of Reg Kerr-Bell, a former chairman of KCTMO who stood down some years ago because of misgivings about how it was being run. In an interview with the London Daily Express, he said: “This is one of the biggest scandals in the country — and it could have been avoided.”

If Kerr-Bell’s point is borne out by subsequent disclosures, the Grenfell disaster may well herald a new dawn in British politics.

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