Thursday, December 17, 2009

Starved watchdog

Houston Chronicle editorial "Starved watchdog" (December 16th, 2009) offers the unsupported asseveration that, in wake of several Houston-area industrial accidents, additional resources need to be given to the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

If only a few workers die in an industrial accident, we won't pry.

That seems to be the philosophy of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB), the understaffed and underfunded independent federal agency charged with investigating plant and refinery mishaps.

Explosions at two Houston-area facilities within a single week have killed one, injured several more and alarmed thousands of residents near the Valero Energy Corp.'s Texas City oil refinery and the American Acryl facility in Seabrook.

Workers at these industrial facilities are free to move to other jobs. Houston-area industrial facilities are analogously free to put in higher and better safety regulations if the higher wage they have to pay to workers for taking the risk is greater than the cost of additional safety regulations.

But what if the additional safety regulations aren't worth the wage? Then we should see an increased number of deaths, and a higher wage. Corrections states, as a credenda, that individuals are able to decide what they prefer better than an ill-incentivized gallimaufry of their peers. Given a choice across multiple alternatives (one the market has an incentive to give if utility may be gained) a government intervention only hurts the very people they are ostensibly trying to protect.

Incidentally, this argument holds without a right-to-sue for a worker or their estate. A law allowing litigation for injuries or death ex post, rather than wages compensating the chance of injury or death ex ante only furthers the argument that government should not regulate as the Chronicle wishes.

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