Saturday, May 22, 2010

Accidents Happen

Donald Rumsfeld famously suggested that the appropriate response to looting and social upheaval following the Iraq War was "stuff happens." It's nobody's fault, no one could have been expected to plan for and prevent it, these things just happen.

That same attitude is on display from the Republican nominee for Senate in Kentucky, Rand Paul. You knew that Rand Paul was going to be quite a character -- he's the son of Ron Paul, the firmest believer in limited government in the whole Congress and the darling of tax protestors and End the Fed enthusiasts everywhere -- but perhaps you didn't anticipate his response to the BP oil spill and the Massey coal mine explosion: "Accidents happen."

Really. Rand Paul thinks President Obama's criticism of BP has been "un-American." It's just part of the "blame-game society in the sense that it’s always got to be someone’s fault instead of the fact that sometimes accidents happen."

And as to the Massey coal mine explosion that killed 29 miners, Rand Paul said, "We had a mining accident that was very tragic. Then we come in, and it’s always someone’s fault. Maybe sometimes accidents happen."

Wow. Look, I would admit that sometimes accidents do happen -- some things aren't anybody's fault -- but the flip side has to be Rand Paul admitting that sometimes people or corporations blatantly ignore safety rules with disastrous results.

One of government's most basic functions is to protect health and safety. People complain about complicated and intricate safety rules, and I'm sure things do get excessive sometimes, but you have to remember that before the modern era of safety regulation, industrial health and safety was a nightmare. Brakemen had to ride on top of trains and duck when the train went through a tunnel, with predictably horrific accident rates. In coal mines, the death rate from industrial accidents could be up to six percent per year. If you work in an office with 100 people, it's pretty jolting if one of them dies on the job. Now imagine if six of them died on the job -- every year.

So accidents don't just "happen." OK, sometimes they do, but often they are the predictable result of not putting a sufficient priority on safety. The nation struggled for decades building an infrastructure of industrial health and safety. I'm sure some elements of the resulting rules are excessive, but to go back to the attitude of "accidents happen," as though there's nothing that could or should be done about that, is stunning.


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