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  • Remarkable — and Harsh — Photos from China.

    Posted by Chicago Boyz Archive on August 19th, 2006 (All posts by )

    The photos are here.

    If there had been color film in the late 19th century USA we would have seen carnage like this as we began to climb the curve of industrialization, ordinary people routinely killed by trains, etc. Except we had democracy and were able to enact laws that led to greater public safety.

    The Chinese have a long way to go before their economic take-off can become safe and clean as well as fast.

    These images are remote indeed from the glittering skyline of Pudong.

    I look at these and I think that the Chinese have a lot on their plate.

     

    21 Responses to “Remarkable — and Harsh — Photos from China.”

    1. Jonathan Says:

      Great photos, though not entirely pleasant to look at.

      A quibble: it’s not laws that bring increased public safety. Safety comes from wealth. This is because safety is a good that has a cost like any other good, and that cost is only worth paying if you have enough wealth to cover the necessities of life. When people are very poor, as everyone used to be, it’s more important to eat than to be safe.

      When people become wealthy enough to be concerned about safety they also begin to pass safety laws. These laws are an effect of the same safety consciousness that reduces the incidence of accidents. They are not the cause of the reduction. I’m sure that poor countries would legislate away accidents if they could. But there is always a tradeoff, and people have to eat before anything else.

    2. Lex Says:

      You are mistaken in a very important point. The Chinese people don’t get to make the trade-off. The people who run China decide how much safety they want their people to have, and the people get no say in the matter. In the USA, railroads operated in a way that killed a lot of people. The public was able to get laws past imposing the cost of more safe operating methods on the railroads. The externalities were imposed back on the owners of the dangerous equipment. So, the laws did cause the safety. People were able to organize and vote. Furthermore, tort law in the 19th century made it almost impossible for an injured person to recover. This changed over time, incentives changed, and safety improved. The Chinese people have no protection in court when they are injured, no redress, no opportunity to recover damages. So there are no incentives not to just dish out injuries. It’s costless to do so. As long as they are an oligarchy like they are now, no matter how rich the country gets overall, safety for the vast majority of people will not improve, because their injuries are costless to the decision makers, and adding safety would be costly to the decisionmakers.

    3. Jonathan Says:

      Your point about the authoritarian regime impeding accountability is a good one. However, it is probably true that as Chinese people become wealthier they will select less-dangerous jobs, transportation, etc., whatever the state of the Chinese legal system, and even though the array of choices they have will be inferior to what might be available in a freer or wealthier society.

      Most of the risks or costs imposed on people by conveyances such as trains are not externalities. They are direct costs or risks imposed on travelers who use these systems. Thus, whatever the state of the formal accountability regime, many travelers will have the option to use alternative means of transportation if the train, bus or plane is realtively dangerous. The wealthier people are, the more they will be willing to pay for safety and the more alternatives they will have.

      I should add that if today’s US tort regime had existed in the 19th Century, railroads and other valuable technologies might never have been developed. Trains back then were, by our standards, terribly dangerous. They did not become safer in response to lawsuits and fiat regulations, which might simply have put them out of business and stopped technological development, but rather because of profit-driven technology innovation in response to the demands of increasingly wealthy passengers and shippers.

    4. Tyouth Says:

      I suspect there is a relatively high number of “19th century” (quotes mine) people in China rather suddenly trying to cope with (late) 20th century life. Something like your city being invaded by thousands of tourists (except worse); confusion results and is a big factor in the apparent mayhem.

    5. Jim Bennett Says:

      Jon —

      Transportation and other 19th century industrial systems imposed direct costs on passengers and crew from accident, but also on the surrounding populations, in terms of train-pedestrian and train-vehicle acciddents at crossings and elsewhere. Although tort law then had less expansive constructions of liability, railroads and steamboat lines (which had frequent collision accidents with smaller craft) had frequent occasions t defend themselves — the term “Philadelphia lawyer” for a particularly tricky lawyer came from the reputation of the attorneys of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a leader in that field as in others. Regulation for safety was far from absent, but until the Federal government became involved in the Progressive era it tended to be an accumulation of case-by-case state laws. Increased safety was due to a combination of liability and the attendant insurance company pressure, regulation (mostly state), union pressure, and customer demand. What we tend to ignore was that railroads, for all their safety problems, were safer than their predecessors, such as stagecoaches, just as steamboats were safer than sailing craft. So customers and jurors had much different standards of safety than we do today in looking back on them.

    6. Jonathan Says:

      Jim, thanks for correcting me and providing more info. Perhaps it would be most productive to characterize safety as a product of development, in which improved laws and institutions contribute to increased wealth and vice versa. More and safer alternatives for travelers are a result.

      My initial intent was to reject what I took to be Lex’s assertion that transportation safety has been improved mainly by governmental fiat.

    7. Lex Says:

      What Jim said. Also, for railroads, you had trains running at high speed through areas that became densely populated at street level. The railroad companies dug in against putting up crossing warnings or slowing down. Municipalities and states began imposing safety measures on them, which was a popular political cause. The carnage decreased dramatically. Railroads had to route around such areas, or go slow and put up safety equipment where they went into them. There was no competitive pressure to do this. The people being hurt or killed weren’t customers, mostly.

      The cost of shifting the burden of safety onto the lowest cost provider, the railroad, the factory owner, did not end up being an impossible burden on our society. Moreover, by protecting the safety of workers and bystanders, the community was dealt into the game. One reason we did not have socialism in this country was that the harder edges of capitalism were milled down in the legal and democratic process. This is part of our success story. Hernando de Soto in The Other Path talks about what it is like to live in Peru, where the business community exists based on political cronyism, and is under no burden to act in a safe manner. Whatever the limitations or defects of our current tort system, which I think are actually overblown, the developments between, say, 1856 and 1906 and 1926 were improvements that led to greater safety, internalizing of externalities, and a society perceived by majorities of people as basically fair.

      One last point, it it interesting that it was the railroads themselves which sought to be regulated by the federal government. They wanted (1) nationwide uniformity of laws, for planning purposes, and (2) a single place to go where they could bring pressure and influence to bear to get favorable regulation, rather than hundreds of states and municipalities to deal with, not all of which could be bribed or coerced into doing things the way the railroads wanted. The idea that 19th century businesses wanted to live in a Randian competitive shark-tank is hogwash. They sought protection from competition, and to spread their costs onto third parties, at every turn, using the government as a means, as businesses always have.

    8. Jonathan Says:

      A society has to achieve some degree of wealth before people will care about these issues. Once they care, it is not always obvious that law or government is the best way to address an issue. In the case of externalities govt may indeed be best placed to act. In other cases this may not be true.

      And of course businesses often welcome govt interference in the mkt to quash competition. This has always been true. But it is a red herring in the context of our discussion.

    9. Lex Says:

      The link for the De Soto book.

      There is a great discussion of the railroads in Chicago in the 19th Century, which goes far more deeply than the few points I made above, in William Cronon’s excellent book Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West.

      On regulation of business, its deep roots in Anglo-American law, and its pervasiveness by localities and states in the supposedly laissez faire 19th Century, see J.R.T Hughes The Governmental Habit Redux: Economic Controls from Colonial Times to the Present. Hughes’ American economic history textbook is brilliant, by the way. Since it is a college textbook the current 7th edition is absurdly expensive. Older editions can be had reasonably cheaply. I read the 5th edition. You can get one of these cheaply on Bookfinder.

      Lawrence M. Friedman’s History of American Law has a good chapter on tort law in the 19th Century. You might think this would be a boring book, but it is actually a gripping read.

      “…what I took to be Lex’s assertion that transportation safety has been improved mainly by governmental fiat.”

      It was improved by public outcry, leading to governmental action. So, if that is “fiat” so be it. The incentives were not there to do otherwise. Especially for railroads which, to a large degree were government-created monopolies who rarely had direct competition along most of their routes. So, yes it was changes in the law that were the main reason that safety improved. Businesses would have cheerily crushed people and ground them up in the machinery and send the meat home in a wheelbarrow forever otherwise.

      Full disclosure, two of my great grandfathers were killed in industrial accidents in the early 20th century. No money, no workers comp, no insurance, no nothing. Irish guys were cheap in Boston. When you broke one, you dumped it out in back and hired a new one off the sidewalk. They were in no position to bargain for safer conditions one-on-one. They organized and did it politically, and through unions.

    10. david foster Says:

      Lex…regarding railroads and safety incentives…even absent the need to pay tort judgments and/or workers comp, railroad accidents can be pretty expensive…ruined locomotives and cars, torn up track and bridges, etc, not to mention the scaring off of potential passengers.

      At least some of the reluctance to adopt safety technologies was due to simple not-getting-it rather than missing incentives…as when Cornelius Vanderbilt mocked the Westinghouse air brake proposal as “trying to stop a train with wind.”

      Indeed, air brakes had a strong direct economic benefit by reducing labor costs (no need for multiple brakemen on top of the train) and permitting a higher average schedule speed.

    11. Lex Says:

      David, good point about accidents. It supports my position, actually. The railroad industry worked hard from an early date to prevent accidents, derailings, collisions, fires, etc. They had a big incentive to do so. It was decades later before they acted to prevent the large number of deaths they inflicted upon pedestrians, year in and year out. The incentives changed, when the law changed, and they, rationally enough, responded to the new incentives.

      Good point about Vanderbilt. Sometimes new measures are rejected because what has always worked looks good enough. It usually is. And, think for a minute what Vanderbilt’s life must have been like. He was at least as big a figure in American life as Bill Gates is now. He had run many successful businesses. I bet he was being approached literally daily with people who had some half-assed scheme or new product or whatever. He probably treated Westinghouse’s proposal the same way. Of course, the hundreds of half-assed things he rejected that didn’t turn out to be right are not remembered.

    12. ronin Says:

      Grew up in India, and i actually saw many accidents and people burnt by husbands, etc. I still cant bring myself to ride a bicycle in the streets of the “bicycle-friendly” University town I live in now in the USA, becasue, at 15, I saw my classmate get run over while he was riding his bike a few feet ahead of me. the tires of the car ran over his head, and I still cant forget the sight fo him laying there dead, with his headcrushed open, and his brain tissue laying there on the road surface.
      Sorry for bringing this ghastly image up. Sorry.

    13. ronin Says:

      Grew up in India, and i actually saw many accidents and people burnt by husbands, etc. I still cant bring myself to ride a bicycle in the streets of the “bicycle-friendly” University town I live in now in the USA, becasue, at 15, I saw my classmate get run over while he was riding his bike a few feet ahead of me. the tires of the car ran over his head, and I still cant forget the sight fo him laying there dead, with his headcrushed open, and his brain tissue laying there on the road surface.
      Sorry for bringing this ghastly image up. Sorry.

    14. Jim Bennett Says:

      Lex — yes, my paternal grandfather lost partial vision in one of his eyes at the age of 16 in a steel-mill accident, from a drop of molten steel. No safety goggles in those days. His compensation was getting fired. He was a big union man ever after. Kept him out of the draft in 1917, though.

      As usual in our big messy country, it was a mixture of things that made the industrial world safer every year. The railroads definitely had big incentives to make themselves safer; the Pennsylvania Railroad pioneered things like heavy steel rail, all-metal coaches that would not catch fire after derailment (a big cause of death in the 19th century) and above all better signalling. really, it was the increasing wealth of society, and technological progress that did it. Before the Bessemer process, there was no way you could afford steel rail instead of iron, or all-metal coaches. Bessemer process was perfected in the late 1880s, by 1905 the Pennsylvania had introduced those Bessemer-facilitated reforms, which brought rail fatalities down to something like current levels of transportation safety (far better than cars today, in fact).

      People will look back at us someday and say “why didn’t they make aircraft with escape pods? After all, military bombers in their era used them. Geez, they just accepted that if the plane failed, everybody would die.” The answer is, we just can’t afford it, and most of the time people don’t die when they fly. So we accept that risk. That was the same attitude they had when they built the Titanic without lifeboat space for all passengers — they had never had lifeboat space for all passengers on liners — it wasn’t socially affordable before that. Maybe it will take nanotechnology before we can afford escape pods on airlines. Who knows exactly when. But the attitude that “we are rich enough now” is nonsense, and people will look back on our era as primitive, poor, and unsafe. Maybe pretty soon.

    15. The Sanity Inspector Says:

      Disaster porn, ugh.

      As long as they are an oligarchy like they are now, no matter how rich the country gets overall, safety for the vast majority of people will not improve, because their injuries are costless to the decision makers, and adding safety would be costly to the decisionmakers.

      Like our old pal P. J. O’Rourke once said, the lesson China holds for us is: never let the people with all the money and the people with all the guns be the same people.

    16. Eric Says:

      In the United States, car accident fatalities are 42,643 in 2003. Every country has car accidents, especially in poor countries like China, India (see ronin’s comment), etc. I don’t understand why single out pictures from China, while you can also find this kind of pictures from any other country?

    17. Jim Bennett Says:

      I don’t understand why single out pictures from China, while you can also find this kind of pictures from any other country?

      Because there is a group of American writers who write about nothing but the visible signs of China’s improvement, and make wild sweeping predictions based on them. Unlike you they don’t even try to deal with analysis of facts. They don’t write that way about any oer country.

      People need to see both sides. When Thomas Barnett writes about China and India being “New Core” countries people need to understand what what means. These photos and stories like Ronin’s remind us that New Core means “improving but not comparable to Old Core yet.”

      WHen you consider what the peasant parts of China and India are still like, “New Core” really means “having an urban core sufficiently prosperous that the government can afford to keep order in the back country without foreign intervention”.

    18. Eric Says:

      1. Overestimate – calling China “New Core”, “emerging superpower”. Even the Chinese don’t call themselves like that.
      2. Underestimate – refuse to acknowledge the economic achievements made by China.

    19. Kurt Says:

      Sure, this goes on in China. I’ve seen stuff like this when I lived in Taiwan (which is alot more developed than China). I don’t think anyone disputes the fact that China has got a long way to go before becoming a developed country. However, I’m sure I could find even more of this stuff in India if I were to look.

    20. Eric Says:

      Lex,

      Don’t worry. China did enact traffic safty law , just like the US did. Here is also a news report about all the “intelligent” free debate about the law at that time. Sadly, like the US or other countries, accedents still happen. Is it fair to say that today’s China is not what it seems to the West?

    21. Eric Says:

      Lex,

      You point is still valid. There are many more other areas that China does not have laws yet. They do have a long way to go compared to US. Maybe traffic accident pictures are the wrong examples to make the point. Or maybe not everything there is negative, though many are.