FOR A TIME, I went to college in the building that once housed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory. It was there, in 1911, that 145 garment workers, most of them women, died in a horrible fire that shocked a nation into thinking seriously about fire code regulations. All that remains now is a commemorative plaque on the base of the building and the regulations themselves. What has been forgotten, I'm afraid, is the tragety that inspired them. As a nation, we have a short memory.
At the moment, for instance, politicians are extolling deregulation as if there were never any reason for regulation in the first place. Suddenly, it is as if the past never happened, as if nothing was ever learned, as if we have forgotten that regulation is often good and deregulation is sometimes just another word for irresponsibility.
People talk now only about the costs of regulation. It costs this and it costs that, and you have to have lawyers in Washington and that, of course, costs some more. You have to fill out forms and then do things the right way and answer to some jerk in Washington who knows nothing about your business and never -- and this is the operative cliche, so pay attention -- had to meet a payroll.
Well, by George and by God, there is something to this. I, for one, can cite you horror story after horror story about what the pointy heads of Washington have done. They have ruined some businesses, and taken the profit out of others and their insistent paper work sure has spoiled the nights of more than one business person. Anyone who has read how Grumman tried to build a bus to meet all the federal regs would understand what I mean. It's a regulatory jungle out there.
But then people still die in coal mines and people still die from black lung and even more would be dying if the government had not forced the coal mine operators to do something about the problem. People are acting now as if the coal mine operators of the country had cleaned up their industry on their own initiative and then the government came in to muck things up. That's not the way it happened.
It did not happen that way in most industries. It was not the government that built the Corvair or, for that matter, the Edsel. It was not the government that marketed thalidomide or cars that disintegrated from little more than a dirty look. The government does not make cigarettes and tell kids how terrific they are and the government did not put poison in the ground all over the country. No cow was ever poisoned by a regulation.
Where are these awful government regs when chemical workers get contaminated? Where are these hated regulations when atomic energy workers got cooked and when they have to turn, as they did at Kerr-McGee in Oklahoma, to a medical officer who had studied something like animal husbandry? Show me the corporation that ever got radiation poisoning. Show me a board of directors who got black lung, who got Kepone poisoning or went into a coal mine where the cold is raw and you have to work hunched over in water. Show me.
How is it that we think the problems are solved when you still can't swim in the Potomac River and the marvelous Chesapeake Bay is dying and all over Long Island you can't drink the well water? Acid rain falls on the forests and fish die in the ponds and in the summer the air of Washington, D.C., keeps the elderly indoors, breathing through air conditioners they can ill afford to keep running. Deregulation will, I know, solve all this.
No one seems to remember these things anymore. Regulations that were designed to save lives, protect consumers and preserve the environment are now seen as examples of government excess. Well, times change and with it so do remedies. There is nothing wrong with rectifying mistakes, with redressing grievances, with what Vice President Bush calls "seeking a balance" and with trying new solutions.
But there is something wrong in forgetting the reason for the regulations, in pretending that the regulations were imposed by a malevolent government intent on doing nothing more than making things harder for American business. And there is also something wrong in pretending that the problems have been solved and that the last thing in the world American industry would do is endanger a worker or rip off a consumer or spoil the environment. They are the same guys they used to be.
Or have we forgotten?