What the Upper Big Branch mine disaster says about the importance of government.
On a slow Friday afternoon, I settled in to read two lengthy reports—one from the West Virginia Governor’s Independent Investigation Panel on the Upper Big Branch/Massey Energy explosion that killed 29 miners, the other from the Urban Land Institute on the slow-motion crisis in U.S. infrastructure. On the surface, these reports seemed to have nothing in common. But as I plowed through them, I realized that they were addressing two sides of the same question—namely, what government does that nothing else can or will. We need government to prevent private bads, such as corporate greed that gives short shrift to mine safety, and also to provide public goods, such as infrastructure, that the market, left to its own devices, will always undersupply.
The Upper Big Branch report makes for chilling reading. Massey Energy’s management systematically ignored basic safety practices and impeded regulators’ efforts to correct them. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration failed to use the tough enforcement tools in its arsenal, even after more moderate measures had failed to turn things around. And not only was the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training understaffed and outgunned, but also it faced what the report bluntly calls the “politics of the state of West Virginia.” Here’s how the report ends:
Many systems created to safeguard miners had to break down in order for an explosion of this magnitude to occur. … Such total and catastrophic systemic failures can only be explained in the context of a culture in which wrongdoing became acceptable, where deviation became the norm. In such a culture it was acceptable to mine coal with insufficient air; with buildups of coal dust; with inadequate rock dust. The same culture allowed Massey Energy to use its resources to create a false public image …. And it became acceptable to cast agencies designed to protect miners as enemies and to make life difficult for miners who tried to address safety.
In an appendix, the report lists 18 individuals who responded to a state subpoena by invoking the Fifth Amendment and refusing to testify. They include Massey Energy’s former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, as well as its Chief Operating Officer, Vice President of Safety, and President of the Upper Big Branch mine. I don’t know how these people live with themselves. Keep this episode firmly in mind whenever you hear conservatives’ ritual denunciation of “burdensome, job-killing regulations.” Life-saving would be more like it.
Although the temperature of the Urban Land Institute’s infrastructure report is considerably lower, its story is no less compelling. It inventories the vigorous efforts our competitors—established as well as emerging economic powers—are making to upgrade their energy, transportation, information, water, and waste facilities. And it contrasts them with the decades of virtually unbroken decline in the share of our GDP that we devote to these purposes. In 2007, inflation-adjusted federal infrastructure spending was no higher than it had been more than a quarter of a century earlier, in 1981. This investment deficit concerns more than convenience and aesthetics, the report argues; it affects, as well, our long-term commercial productivity and national competitiveness. And there’s no possibility that the private sector alone can take up the slack, because not all potential economic gains from infrastructure investments enter into the calculus of individual private actors.
Not only must the public sector do more; it must act differently. At the federal level, says the report, funding should be allocated in a way that ensures support over extended project time horizons. For their part, states and localities will have to expand and diversify their funding sources. And despite the near-certainly that I’ll be accused yet again of laughable monomania, I’ll quote a key sentence from the report: “At a time when funding is scarce, establishing a U.S. infrastructure bank seems like a no-brainer.” It sure does.
So—to repeat—those of us who reject conservative assaults on government do so for forward-looking, practical reasons, not out of obsolete ideological commitments. We believe that without appropriate government activity, our country will be less efficient and productive as well as less secure and humane. That doesn’t mean that we should resist all proposed reforms, even when they involve long-cherished programs. But we must defend the need for government, staunchly and unapologetically, against the narrow and blinkered attacks that have come to dominate our public discourse.
William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for The New Republic.