Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Faster, Higher, Bigger: A Rationale for Regulation

The death of a Georgian luge athlete on the opening day of the 2010 Winter Olympics occurred amid concerns about the speed of the record-setting track at the Whistler Sliding Center. “There were some questions asked by other athletes even before this tragic accident,” said Nikolas Rurua, Georgia’s deputy minister for culture and sports. He added that there had been several crashes in the same area of the track. This is like looking back in a financial crisis to point out that several had preceded that one. It does seem like financial crises may be part of a larger pattern that is based in human nature. I contend that just such an innate propensity to recklessness at the expense of the public good (and one's own!) serves as a rationale for regulation in any country.
The luge is often called the “fastest sport on ice.” Sliders use their legs and shoulders to steer small fiberglass sleds down an icy track, at times approaching or surpassing speeds of 90 m.p.h., according to the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics Website. One headline read, “This Winter Games could be the first time the sport sees a competitor hit 100 mph.” Sports Illustrated’s David Epstein, who covered the Olympics, claimed the Whistler course was at the time the fastest in the world, “and not by a little.” He explained that while most luge courses “flatten out” around the 11th turn, the Whistler track “just keeps on dropping, so there’s really kind of no break from gathering speed toward the end.” Epstein reported that some athletes had been complaining about the speed of the course and speculating that the 2010 Winter Games could be the first time a competitor hit 100 mph. “That’s 15 to 20 mph faster than any course in the rest of the world.” Is being faster the overriding point?
Whether we are talking about luge tracks, sky-scrapers, corporations, or passenger jets, the human psyche seems to have an innate proclivity to extend a threshold further—regardless even of how far the extension is from our natural limits. This can be reckless, for we are perhaps by nature inclined to ignore the recklessness involved in going faster or getting bigger.
Not only do we like faster, higher, and bigger; we, like Dick Fuld, the last CEO of Lehman Brothers, are not content until we have hit biggest, for he put the investment bank through so much risk in part so his bank would surpass Goldman Sachs. He wanted to be higher, in the rarified Wall Street club that has included JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Solomon Brothers, Bank of America, and Goldman Sachs. If the human susceptibility is as I describe here, a strong rationale for regulation of business exists in any country. We should not limit recklessness to that which occurred from the late 1990's through at least the Financial Crisis of 2008 as large American investment banks bundled sub-prime (i.e., risky) mortgages into bonds, a third of which Moodys rated AAA, and sold even the lower-rated bonds as if even they were safe (while confidentially admitted to themselves that they were "crap"). The human brain simply doesn't function well when in the grip of greed. Interestingly, a group of the large bankers meeting with U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, amid the fear in the financial crisis admitted that they had been wracked with greed--so why hadn't the federal government protected them from themselves with financial regulation? The answer is of course the bankers' own lobbying and political campaign contributions. You cannot both corrupt government into functioning as a plutocracy and yet expect that same government to be politically strong enough to act as a constraint on even severe cases of greed.

Airlander 10, the largest aircraft in the world, crashed on its second test-flight on August 24, 2016
In 1912, the Titanic ocean-liner was the largest thing built by human beings. In spite of the risk in being the largest, the ship was presumed to be unsinkable. Speaking about the ships a century later, Helen Kearns, a spokesperson for Siim Kallas, who was the E.U. Transportation Commissioner at the time, said, “There are legitimate questions as these vessels have substantially evolved in recent years.” I wonder if “evolved” is the right word. “The boats have gotten a lot bigger, as it’s economically advantageous to have more passengers,” Kearns added, but “the way these vessels have grown in size does mean finding the right balance to make sure regulations are stringent enough to ensure there are procedures like safe evacuations.” She was presuming here that cost-efficiency is a given, and, furthermore, that regulations can make up for any increased risk that comes with size.
Kearns was responding to reports that a cruise ship had hit a rock off Tuscany and partially sank several yards from an island off the coast. In the case of the partial-sinking of the Costa Concordia about twenty feet from an island just off the Tuscany coastline on Friday the 13th in January 2012, there was still confusion regarding how many of the 4,200 souls on board were still missing. That total figure of people who had been on board is about double that of the ill-fated Titanic, which went down in the North Atlantic on April 15, 1912—almost exactly a century earlier. In that case, the White Star Lines pressured the captain to light the fourth boiler to reach New York City early and "make the papers!" It did not occur to anyone that the ship's rudder was made for smaller ships, and thus it could not turn quickly enough to avoid the giant pop-cycle ahead in the cold water.
To put the two accidents in perspective, being twenty feet from an island would undoubtedly have been treated like a godsend to those people on the Titanic who perished in the icy waters of the north Atlantic. Had cruise ships become so large (and complex) that being twenty feet away was deemed to be too far? Or had cruise lines become too bureaucratic, mirroring the tendency in modern corporations generally, as per Max Weber's studies.
We forget that in James Cameron's film, Titanic, the Titanic’s designer says to the White Star Line executive who has just claimed that the Titanic—the biggest ship in the world—cannot sink,  “I assure you, good sir, it is made of iron. The Titanic will sink. It is a mathematical certainty.” A century later, it was taken for granted that Costa could not fall over in the water, yet it did—making it difficult if not impossible to deploy the emergency boats.
Regulation can be thought of as the structural walls separating sections of a ship. In oil tankers, those walls keep the oil from all going to the front or back and capsizing the ship. In the case of ships like the Titanic, the walls were designed to keep water leaking into one section from filling more sections--five were filled in the case of the Titanic because of the way the iceberg tapped along the side of the ship. Regulation does not stop at how ships are designed internally, but includes how big they are. Ideally, regulation realizes that speed, height, and size are themselves subject to regulation because the faster you go, the higher you build, and the bigger your boat or corporation, the faster you'll fall. An instinctual human urge, I submit, discounts or dismisses such risk (a.k.a. recklessness) out of a single-mindedness that narrows cognitive perspective into a fixation. Doubtless a product of eons of natural selection, this instinct is not bound to change anytime soon, so we can take regulation as a given rather than pretend that it is optional. Before the financial crisis, U.S. Federal Reserve Chair, Alan Greenspan, said he was ideologically opposed to regulating the financial sector; he thought a laissez-faire market could control its own volatility and risk. During the crisis, he briefly admitted that he had been wrong. He soon "repented" for his "heresy" and went back to the free-market line even though even competition requires game-rules, especially if the players keep getting bigger. 

"Olympic Luger Dies on Track Where Speed Caused Concern,", Febuary 13, 2011.
Steven Erlanger, “Oversight of Cruise Lines at Issue After Disaster,” The New York Times, January 17, 2012.