Lesson from the London fire: Sometimes, more regulation is good: Larry Wilson

The scorched facade of the Grenfell Tower in London on June 15, 2017, after a massive fire raced through the 24-story apartment building in west London. (Photo by Frank Augstein/Associated Press)
The scorched facade of the Grenfell Tower in London on June 15, 2017, after a massive fire raced through the 24-story apartment building in west London. (Photo by Frank Augstein/Associated Press)

I get it that government regulations can be ridiculous. More than that: awful.

I’ll even spell it guv’mint to show my distaste.

I’ll recall that poster in the barber shop of my youth, where I’d go monthly for the “regular boy’s” cut: The picture of the goateed old Sam, father of our country, with the caption, “He’s your uncle, not your dad.” Maybe that’s because of the absurdity of having to be licensed by the state in order to take scissors to hair,

I believe for every law passed, in every jurisdiction, two laws should be thrown out. I decline to call our electeds, whether city, county, state or federal, “lawmakers.” If you elected me to Congress and evaluated my success by how many laws I had authored, you would be sorely disappointed. I would be a law unmaker.

Regulations. Did you know that you can’t sell wine in 500 milliliter bottles, only in 750 ml ones for your table wines, owing to a government regulation? It’s (almost) enough to make you into a Brexit kind of guy.

But there are unnecessary regulations and then there are the other ones — the kind that save lives. The ones that aren’t about what size bottle you can sell your wine in but rather how you, Mr. Pesticide Maker, don’t get to dump your leftover Roundup residue into our lakes and rivers. The ones that cleaned up our air so dramatically in our time, so that a Los Angeles County with twice as many people and cars as 60 years ago has way fewer smog-choked days, thanks to the imposition of regulations requiring catalytic converters and unleaded gasoline.

And, speaking of Britain, which is supposedly so overregulated by its Brussels overlords in the European Union: That public housing tower in London that caught on fire in June in a disaster that killed more than 80 people had its exterior walls re-clad with a metal and foam material that created a “chimney effect” and helped it burn up like a Roman candle.

Though the cladding is made by an American company, Arconic, formerly known as Alcoa, regulations in our own country prevent it from being used on high-rise towers precisely because of the fire danger presented. And that Whirlpool refrigerator suspected of causing the wider fire when it ignited in a fourth-floor apartment? British regulations allow it to have a plastic rear panel. Here, those panels are metal, as required by law.

And it’s not as if not just the companies but authorities as well knew of the dangers of both the fridge and the outside wall covering. “The London Fire Brigade has long campaigned to ban such products, even posting videos of burning refrigerators on its website,” The New York Times reported. “The group posted a statement there in February that said it had been lobbying for five years for new appliances to have fully fire-resistant backing — to little avail.”

And a few days after the fire, Arconic announced that it would stop selling the paneling with the polyethylene core that is combustible for use in high-rise buildings. It turns out that the product is only slightly cheaper than fire-resistant alternatives that don’t go up in flames like that little metal chimney you use to ignite the coals for your Weber.

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The free market is a wonderful thing. But it’s not so good at making decisions about the common good. Most companies are ethical. But companies are also in the business of selling stuff, and if that stuff is legal to sell, they will do so.

As our nation goes through one of its periodic eras in which there is pressure to deregulate every little thing simply because there may be too many regulations out there, let us remember the 80 dead in the London fire.

Larry Wilson is a member of the Southern California News Group editorial board. Twitter: @publiceditor

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