Bonfire of the Inanities

Don't let the Ghost Ship tragedy become an excuse to limit liberty.

We have all been appalled at the horror of the Oakland Ghost Ship warehouse fire in which around three dozen people were burned to death, trapped in a maze of highly flammable art.

Being burned alive is not a fate we would wish on anyone, and it's particularly sad that most of the victims were young adults with their whole lives ahead of them.  It's quite understandable that the media immediately looked for a villain on which to blame the disaster.

They found one in Dereck Almena, who owned a lease on the warehouse and had turned it into an artist collective.  Constructed and licensed as a warehouse, the building was neither intended nor approved for human habitation, yet Almena encouraged artists to live, work, and party there.  It's interesting to note that, although his own wife and small children often slept there, on the night of the fire they were safely in a hotel.

As appealing a scapegoat as Mr. Alema is, more worried about the demise of his warehouse than the nearly twoscore souls trapped within, the media is once again jumped to very much the wrong conclusion - and, sure enough, they have entirely avoided casting blame where it properly belongs.

To Serve, To Protect, Or To Stifle?

Just as soon as she was through wringing her hands over the unfortunate demise of so many voters, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf leaped to the defense of her longsuffering public servants who, it transpired, had not inspected the building since President Reagan.

I want to be clear that we will not scapegoat city employees in the wake of this disaster. What we will do is give them clarity and support that they deserve.

Mayor Schaaf is certainly dedicated to supporting her city employees, that's for sure, to the tune of $362,211 per annum for the assistant chief of inspectors!  One shudders to think of what the actual chief of inspectors must be raking in.

Do you suppose that the City of Oakland might perhaps be better off with an assistant chief inspector who makes a paltry $180,000 salary, freeing up funds for, oh, about three more inspectors to do some actual inspecting?

For that matter, there are a grand total of six fire inspectors for the City of Oakland (led by both a chief and an assistant chief.  How much leading do they need?)  Oakland is a city, proudly possessive of over 4,200 properties.

That sounds like a lot, but at the fairly sedate rate of one building inspection per half-day, this worthy half-dozen could still check out every building in the city once every year and a half.

In the case of the Ghost Ship, it certainly wouldn't have taken half a day to pass judgement; thirty seconds would have revealed the place to be a complete firetrap, as these photos show.  With no sprinklers, visible fire extinguishers, or even smoke detectors, it was a disaster waiting to happen; even the few windows were boarded up or covered by flammable debris.  It was already supplied with a coffin, literally and figuratively!

Is it possible that the hardworking inspectors somehow forgot that street and overlooked it for three decades?  Nope: there were at least ten formal complaints about code violations at the site, all fully documented as a matter of public record.

But it wasn't your ordinary junk heap, though it does look it from the outside.  Even as old-fashioned in taste as is your humble correspondent, a visible degree of artistic flair is evident.  Sense, no, nor taste - but definitely artsiness.

The fact is, even the laziest unionized government employee doesn't want a roomful of people to go up in smoke thanks to their personal negligence.  We can be confident that the Oakland Six are feeling horrible today and blame themselves, at least a bit.

What we aren't hearing, though, is that like most cities in America, politicians and local leaders like having an "arts scene."  It makes a city seem edgy and hip instead of dark and dangerous.  The industrial jobs didn't seem likely to come back; isn't it better to have a derelict warehouse occupied by nutty but generally harmless fruit-loops rather than turning it over to crack whores and junkies?

The plain truth is: disasters like this are extremely rare.  How many risky Bohemian enclaves are there in this country?  Hundreds?  Thousands?  And how many of them have killed this many people?

We go decades between such horrors; statistically, the partiers in the Ghost Ship were at greater risk of breaking their neck falling down the badly-constructed stairs than what actually happened to them.  They just got unlucky, as did the Oakland inspectors and everybody else involved, but the decision-making seemed sensible at the time.

One Man's Pursuit of Happiness Is Another's Stupidity

Mr. Almena's young family had living quarters at the Ghost Ship, but as we mentioned, he'd packed the tots off to a hotel because of the anticipated party noise.  This saved their lives.

Because of this, every single person who perished had made a free, adult choice to be there.  The youngest was 17, technically a minor, but in modern America we pretty much treat 17-year-old college kids as adults.

Every one saw the colossal mess.  Every one had to painstakingly wind their way around the tottering piles of objets d'art.  Every one of them had to pick their way up the half-staircase, half-ramp made out of leftover packing crates that led to the second floor.  On reaching the dance floor, every one of them knew that the whole place was powered by perilously strewn extension cords - if they didn't know at first, they quickly found out when they tripped on one.

Anybody with the brains that God gave geese would instantly realize the potential fire hazards, but, we emphasize, potential hazard.  Each partygoer made the rational decision that the known fun to be had greatly outweighed the extremely unlikely possibility of an agonizing death.

People make decisions like this every day - some sensible, some not, some lucky, some not.  You can do everything right and wise in your life and get killed in your bed by a falling cow.

Or, like John Glenn, you can ride into outer space atop thousands of tons of the most explosive stuff ever discovered, after spending thousands of hours roaring around in the air with people shooting at you, and live an active healthy life for nigh on to a century.  When your number's up, it's up, and not before.

Could we make the world a safer place?  Sure we could.  But with each such rule, each new pettifogging regulation, each additional permit or inspection, our freedom diminishes just that little bit and costs for everything go up just a bit more.

Until eventually we're so protected we have no freedom of movement at all and can't afford anywhere to live, the stuff of science fiction.

Placing Blame Where It's Due

So there's no villain in this story?  Actually, there is, and it's hinted at in many media reports.

Almena collected rent from the resident artists, charging between $300 and $600 a month in a city where a one-bedroom apartment can go for more than $2,000. He told his tenants to say the warehouse was merely a 24-hour art studio, not their home. But photos show an AirStream trailer, campers and loft beds inside the warehouse among the art installations.

How often do we hear leftists complain about the high cost of housing and of life in general?  We recall one of the more out-there justifications for Obamacare being that, if people don't have to worry about paying for healthcare, they can stop working and go be an artist.

“As you hear from these stories, this is a liberation,” Pelosi said at a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday.

“This is what our founders had in mind--ever expanding opportunity for people.

“You want to be a photographer or a writer or a musician, whatever -- an artist, you want to be self-employed, if you want to start a business, you want to change jobs, you no longer are prohibited from doing that because you can’t have access to health care, especially because you do not want to put your family at risk,” she said.

The Ghost Ship warehouse was the living embodiment of Nancy Pelosi's dream of freedom, consisting of people who had forsworn gainful employment to pursue their own dreams.  Mr. Almena simply made that possible.  The parties were a way of raising money to help pay the rent and keep the price as low as possible for the resident starving artists.  Isn't this a noble and worthy goal, at least if you're a leftist - and even a bit, dare we say it, capitalistic and rendolent of the principles of free enterprise?

For all that we take a dim view of modern art, we strongly hold that people should have the right to pursue their own dreams and their own lives free from government interference so long as they don't harm anybody else.  As we've seen, even the carnage at the Ghost Ship didn't harm anyone who hadn't freely chosen to be there with their adult eyes wide open.  Is it really right for the force of government to prohibit risky liberty of this sort?

What's left unsaid is the reason why Mr. Almena's illegal housing cost a few hundred bucks whereas the smallest legal apartment was north of two grand.  But the reason is thoroughly documented and in that selfsame Bay Area:

The problem is that San Francisco won’t build housing, and making matters worse, residents work tirelessly to prevent more housing from being built.

If the universally-wealthy and powerful journalists and politicians wringing their hands over the Ghost Ship dead want to know who is to blame, they need only look in the mirror.  It is they who raised the cost of housing to such ridiculous levels that people had to choose to live in firetraps in order to pursue their dreams.

Do we really want Big Government pricing our dreams out of the market, and an unlucky few into an early grave?

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

The trouble with hazards and risks in recent years is that only the potential worst-case result is ever considered. The actual likelihood of such a result is ignored, especially by those in authority, making money, or covering their asses.

For example: should I wear a seat belt?

If you don't, you'll be thrown through the window and reduced to bite-sized gobbets. We skip right over any other potential consequence that isn't of the most dramatic kind. Also disregarded is the chance you stand of finding yourself in these circumstances. Ergo, seat belt use must be enforced by government busybodies.

December 21, 2016 9:47 PM

The reality, whether we like it or not, is that many of these life safety regulations are urged by the insurance industry because they have to pay out when something bad happens. By enacting life safety regulations they are able to keep premiums low and avoid financial liability in the case of egregious violations. As long as we continue to cultivate our aversion to risk and high tort rewards this system will remain in place.

January 8, 2017 9:46 AM
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