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The Lives the Free Market Took

The people who died in last Sunday’s plane crash were not just killed by Boeing. Their deaths stemmed from an ideology that puts business interests above human life.

A grounded American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 is towed to another location at Miami International Airport on March 13, 2019 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty

Tragedies happen every day around the world, whether by accident or other misfortune. But the Boeing plane crashes that have taken the lives of hundreds of unsuspecting travellers were not acts of God, but rather human-made.

Last Sunday, a Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 157 people on board. It’s the second time the model has crashed in similar fashion in the last five months, after a Max 8 crashed into the Java Sea in October last year, killing 189 people. Both planes were only a few months old.

By Wednesday, at least forty-one countries grounded the planes due to safety concerns, with the United States and Canada practically the sole outliers. Justin Trudeau’s government finally relented on Wednesday morning, while the Trump administration continued to defy growing calls within the US, including from Republicans and labor unions, to do the same, reportedly after Trump took a call from Boeing’s chief executive assuring him the planes were safe. Increasingly isolated, the president eventually ordered the planes grounded later that day.

It was curious behavior, to say the least, from a president who pledged to put “America First.” Eight Americans were on board the Ethiopian Airlines flight. Two were brothers coming back from a holiday in Australia, one of whom had a baby on the way. One was a soldier researching his family history who has left behind a wife and son. Another was an Ethiopian immigrant who had just been married.

There was also Samya Stumo, a twenty-four-year-old health care analyst from Massachusetts. Samya was a fiercely intelligent, irrepressible young woman who spent her life fearlessly in pursuit of new knowledge and experiences, and had a knack for endearing herself to anyone and everyone she came across. As her friend and doctoral researcher Noor Jdid put it, Samya inspired those she met to work for global justice, and was passionate about turning global health into a human-centred pursuit. She would’ve done a lot of good in the world. She was also a personal friend.

Each one of the victims, who hailed from thirty-five different countries and four continents, had stories like Samya’s. They had ambitions to fulfill, memories they cherished, fellow human beings to help, and loved ones that cared for them. They were students, artists, aid workers, doctors, government officials, and more. Many were reportedly en route to a UN environmental conference in Nairobi. When we hear about such tragedies, they seldom hit us on a visceral level. Yet somewhere, someone is always mourning.

These deaths were likely not some freak accident. Pilots complained at least five times to federal authorities last year about the model’s autopilot system, many warning that the planes suddenly tilted nose-down after take-off, which, based on the evidence recovered, appears to be what happened in the Ethiopian flight too. One pilot called the flight manual “inadequate and criminally insufficient.” Another called the shoddy level of training pilots received to fly the planes “unconscionable.” Yet until almost the last possible moment, the Federal Aviation Administration continued to argue that there were “no systemic performance issues” and “no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” There’s a reason Ralph Nader, the famed consumer advocate and Samya’s great uncle, calls the agency a “patsy.”

There is more to the story than the Trump administration’s deep ties to the company responsible. According to the Wall Street Journal, Boeing and the FAA were in talks to mend this very problem with the flight control system, when the work was paused for five weeks due to the president’s government shutdown. It’s entirely possible that without this delay, these lives would have been spared.

But this is bigger than just Trump. Boeing is not just a lobbying juggernaut that donates prodigiously to politicians all over the country; it’s also a company in which numerous members of Congress are personally invested, and it cultivates mutually beneficial financial relationships with top officials. Meanwhile, as William McGee of Consumer Reports told Amy Goodman, these issues are rooted in the FAA’s lax, business-friendly oversight of the very industry it’s meant to regulate, a case of regulatory capture that stretches back long before this administration.

Whatever the black box from the Ethiopian Airlines flight reveals, the lives put at risk by lax regulations are not apolitical tragedies; they are caused by an administration that time and again has shown itself to be callous and indifferent to the lives of the people it claims to fight for, whether Puerto Ricans left to fend for themselves in the wake of natural disaster, or federal workers used as bargaining chips in a game of political brinkmanship.

But more than that, they are victims of an ideology that tells us the greatest insult to human life is not the death and misery that comes from unchecked greed, but efforts to democratically control it through public institutions. The real problems aren’t unsafe products, pollution, dangerous chemicals, and the like, we’re told, but “red tape” and the taxes used to fund the bodies regulating them. Meanwhile, activists like Nader have long been painted as “wacky” extremists in the pursuit of some quixotic ideological crusade simply for trying to do things like prevent people from dying in cars without seat belts.

When social-democratic policies are enacted, wealthy people take less home after taxes, and businesses are inconvenienced by regulations meant to secure the common good. But when neoliberal policies are put in place, people and their families go hungry, they lose their homes, they get injured on the job, they get sick, and, sometimes, they die. The public should be enraged by the actions of governments like Trump’s and Trudeau’s; but we should also be angry at a political narrative that tells us trying to stop such tragedies is “ideological” instead of common sense. We owe it to the crash victims to create no more of them.