Alberto Mingardi  

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower and some Internet demagogues

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Last week, Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London went up in flames. At least 58 people died, including two young Italian architects. In my own country, therefore, the story was quickly picked up in the media - and it is a tremendously sad one. The young couple called their respective families when the fire began and assured them of their safety, but eventually the young woman, Gloria, when she understood she was about to die, called her mother to thank her for all she did for her in her 27 years of life. This is heart-breaking.

If you're human at all, you can't but feel sympathy for the casualties of such a disastrous event, for their family, and for the other tenants who saw their holdings destroyed. Several crowdfunding campaigns are being set up to provide these people with much needed help.

Politics is a quintessentially human activity, but sometimes may well be dehumanising. Galvanised by recent elections, the British left is trying to exploit the fire politically. A Labour MP, Clive Lewis, tweeted: "Burn Neoliberalism, not people". His understanding of neoliberalism is quite limited. (For example, he tweets about a "Montepellier set", thinking, I suppose, of the Mont Pelerin Society.)

Economist Mariana Mazzucato didn't miss a chance to play her part: "Grenfell Tower = microcosm of 3 very bad economic ideas 1. De-regulation; 2. Outsourcing (public service for private profit); 3. Austerity".

I confess that, while I fancy myself having at least a broad understanding of what people mean when they say "neoliberalism," I don't know enough about Grenfell Tower to express more than grief on the subject. Be aware, therefore, that what follows is based on Wikipedia, articles I've read in these last few days, and conversations with British friends.

I will try to read Mariana Mazzucato charitably. Grenfell Tower is in fact an example of social housing: it is owned by the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council. The building was managed by a tenant management organisation, Kensington and Chelsea TMO. Their own website explains the structure and nature of such an organisation. The building was thus owned by the Council, which refurbished it in 2012. One residents' group had issued multiple warnings about the safety of the building.

I think Mazzucato wants to say that: (a) Thatcherite deregulation weakened safety and fire regulation (a point made also by London mayor Sadiq Khan); (b) organisations like Kensington and Chelsea TMO weaken political oversight over buildings like this; and (c) austerity forced the council to go for a less expensive renovation plan rather than for the more expensive one.

These criticisms only seem to be appropriate.

First, deregulation is hardly such a widespread phenomenon as socialists believe. It is one thing to say that British fire regulations are "old" or "inadequate" and quite another to maintain that the British government actually deregulated in this case. This would be news to me. It is safe to assume, I'd maintain, that newer (say: 1990s and 2000s) buildings in London are safer than those built in the 1960s and 1970s. Better standards have emerged. I don't know if this happened because of regulation or because of technological advances. But either way it seems to be incompatible with the idea that developers have been given a blank cheque to build unsafe buildings. On top of that, rule-making involves making trade-offs. Megan McArdle has pointed out that while "People who died in the Grenfell fire might be alive today if regulators had required sprinkler systems," "it's possible that by allowing large residential buildings to operate without sprinkler systems, the British government has prevented untold thousands of people from being driven into homelessness by higher housing costs." Her piece is thoughtful and well worth reading.

Second, I suppose that a council could take one of these two routes: create a specific body to manage properties or manage them by committees and subcommittees. This is the same rationale by which public corporations and independent agencies are created by Parliaments. Is there evidence that the latter are better managers than the first? I can hardly see that.

Third, austerity. Government is enjoined to spend less, and thereby jeopardises its citizens. I don't know the details of the renovation of Grenfell Tower. Probably Mazzucato has a deeper knowledge than I have. But governments and local councils deal with scarce resources too, just like like private individuals. As in her work on The Entrepreneurial State, Mazzucato seems to believe that having a bottomless pocket makes government the kind of investors we need - for fostering innovation, entrepreneurship, growth, and now, even safety. But whenever you are choosing between projects, budgetary considerations enter the picture, even if you're the most social democratic-minded of mayors. On top of that, if we see a general tendency in government, it is not to spend less for realising a certain project than the private sector would. Big checks from governments are also tainted with the shadow of corruption, which means private interests interfering and lobbying to get hold of them. This is not a phenomenon that is inversely correlated with the size of government, though I'm afraid Mazzucato may genuinely think, contrary to theory and fact, that the bigger the government, the less corrupt it is. For this reason, of course, she doesn't even consider the possibility that there might be problems inherent in public property that misalign the interests of tenants and owners even more so than with private ownership.

I think that ideally in moments like this we should be silent, honor the memory of those who died, and simply be human. But the acrobatic building of a narrative by which anything bad that happens in this world is due to "neoliberalism" doesn't stop for anything, including tragedy. For that reason, sadly, I feel the need to opine also.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Fazal Majid writes:

We will need to wait for the investigation to complete of course, but it seems one reason why the entire tower caught fire almost instantly (and the fire-breaks not working as designed) is the exterior cladding, which was a mix of aluminum and flammable plastic, one that is banned for use in tall buildings in the US and possibly even in the UK, despite their lax building standards. It served as a chimney/accelerant and spread the fire to all the floors in an instant.

This was installed last year in an effort to improve the aesthetics of the building, something that only really benefits the (wealthy) North Kensington neighbors who probably complained to the council about having to endure the eyesores. The tenants themselves would be better off (or alive) if the council and TMO had not spent the money at all, so in a way there was not enough austerity.

Another cause for the death toll is that residents were previously advised in case of fire to shelter in place instead of attempting to escape the building. This may have been sound guidance if the fire-stops worked as they should, but in this case it proved fatal.

Properly designed buildings are not supposed to go in flames at once like this. Almost certainly there was criminal negligence and incompetence from the council, building management and some of the builders involved in maintenance and refurbishment. Whether that was caused by austerity-driven budget cuts or garden-variety corruption remains to be seen.

Thaomas writes:

Like you, I do not know bout the decision making of the Council, but we do know that "austerity," -- investing less during recessions when real interest rates are below normal and there are more unemployed resources (market prices greater then marginal costs) reduces real income. IF the Council did not or statutorily could not act on an NPV rule investing on the Glenfell Tower, then "austerity" may properly be said to have contributed to the tragedy.

OH Anarcho-Capitalist writes:

Here in the US too, our media and political pundits never let a good tragedy go to waste...

Alan Goldhammer writes:

Megan McArdle has pointed out that while "People who died in the Grenfell fire might be alive today if regulators had required sprinkler systems," "it's possible that by allowing large residential buildings to operate without sprinkler systems, the British government has prevented untold thousands of people from being driven into homelessness by higher housing costs."

I've long given up reading Ms. McArdle for a variety of reasons, one being false comparisons which is at work here. One might use her argument to complain about coal mine safety regulation reducing employment (John Oliver did pretty much this in his take-down of some coal CEOs on his program Sunday). Yes, by all means let's eliminate safety standards and drive down costs.

J Mann writes:

@Alan - it looks like sprinkler cost-benefit has been studied pretty extensively. I can't tell which of the various publications are in the pocket of Big Sprinkler, but this Scottish study looks typical.

http://www.gov.scot/Resource/0047/00477895.pdf

@Fazal - it looks like more on-the-spot regulators might have helped with the cladding issue. The US forbade the use of this type of cladding on tall buildings years ago, but the UK has apparently not.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/19/world/europe/uk-grenfell-tower-london-fire.html?_r=0

Alejandro Durán writes:

It indeed seems that the fire was fed by the building's exterior panels. These panels were installed not so long ago. As far as I know the main purpose of them was to provide insulation so that England’s greenhouse gas reduction standards could be met. A fire-proof insulation alternative was not considered because of its higher cost –and, of course, tenants were not rich. If there is culprit to be found please take a look –as usual- to the “philanthropic ogre” which kills people for their own good.

As any good leftist, Doña Mariana is eager to create anti-capitalist propaganda but cannot care less about truth and really contribute to prevent these tragedies from occurring again. I wonder if she is as enraged by the far more devastating Venezuelan tragedy -one that cannot be ascribed to “neoliberalism”, whatever that non-concept is supposed to be.

Mark Bahner writes:
One might use her argument to complain about coal mine safety regulation reducing employment (John Oliver did pretty much this in his take-down of some coal CEOs on his program Sunday). Yes, by all means let's eliminate safety standards and drive down costs.

It's worth examining which things make economic sense versus which things that don't. For example, cockpit door locks seem to be a relatively inexpensive and effective hijacking deterrent while TSA control of airport security may not make economic sense.

Mark Bahner writes:
@Alan - it looks like sprinkler cost-benefit has been studied pretty extensively. I can't tell which of the various publications are in the pocket of Big Sprinkler, but this Scottish study looks typical.

That's an interesting report, but it would (obviously) be better to have a report more tailored to the situation of high-rise (e.g., more than 10 stories) residential building, and whether the sprinkler system is original installation or retrofit. And also possibly whether it's exterior versus interior.

It's way outside my area of expertise, but it seems to me very few people would have died if all people could have been in the central stairwell. It seems like if they could have gotten there, eventually they would have made it down safely. So something like advising people to get to the central stairwell (rather than staying in their residences) might have saved many lives.

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