The New Yorker has an in-depth article about what caused the Titan submersible disaster. I was initially going to leave it for the Sunday Good Reads this weekend, but the longer I thought about the piece, the angrier I got. The death of these people is a microcosm of how this country is fundamentally broken.
It starts with someone with more money than brains, of course. Or at least, more money than humility. Rush, the owner of the company that created the Titan, came from old money and did a turn as a venture capitalist after earning an MBA. He comes from a breed of people who think that financial engineering is a substitute for actually understanding your business. The small submersible business actually has a decent safety record, per the article, but that is because until now it has worked closely with the safety regulators. In the words of one successful submersible builder “We’re using the brainpower of their engineers to feed into our design”. Rush, though, Rush knew better.
That, of course, is nothing new. Rich people who think that money equal brains have been a plague on humanity probably since money was shiny rock and pretty weeds. Here, however, is where the uniquely broken American state made the deaths of Titan passengers almost inevitable. First, because they weren’t passengers at all — they were employees.
That is right — you weren’t buying a ticket on a sub, you were technically funding research. You were going on the trip as a “mission specialist.” Why? Because the U.S. doesn't care if you kill your employees. According to the specialists in the article, the regulations around the death of passengers will land you in trouble. The regulations around the death of crewmembers will not. Labor, as always, is expendable in the United States. Labor is not valuable, it is not even people — it is just a cost, an expense, like screws and toilet paper. And, apparently, treated with just as much concern by the government.
The article does not go into details about how this was allowed, but the fact that it was is insane on its face. How did research funding leave over money to create a profit for the company that ran Titan? Should that not have been a clue that these funds were not actually dedicated to research? Our ridiculously lax labor regulations likely meant that the passengers did not have to prove that they were actually employees doing real work that they were qualified to do. The regulatory agencies just defaulted to taking the company’s word for it.
Much of the limited regulation that does exist was easily overcome, apparently by the use of the same fiendishly clever “because the company says so” methodology mentioned above. The parent company that ran Titan operated out of Washington state, but was officially a Bahamian company, registered in the Bahamas and claimed to operate entirely outside the territorial waters of the United Sates. So, despite being designed, built, and apparently tested in Washington state, U.S. regulations could not apply because, well, the company said it was really from the Bahamas. And who are the government to gainsay that?
It gets worse.
The company hired a former Coast Guard admiral, who, in his words, wanted to bring “to help bring operational and regulatory expertise” to the company. His expertise apparently helped them avoid regulations that might have saved some lives. I cannot tell you how much this infuriates me. My father spent twenty years in the Coast Guard. His friends and co-workers were some of the best people, in every sense of the word, I ever knew. They dedicated their lives to saving others — and they sometimes paid a terrible price for that dedication. To have an admiral betray that mission, to turn their back on that trust, for money, is infuriating. But that is where we are as a society — everything is excusable if it makes you rich, and everyone wants to be rich because if you aren’t, one bad day can ruin your life.
Not every employee of the company turned their back on their responsibility to the people who were buying tickets on the Titan. David Lochridge was hired to be the chief pilot and director of marine operations. His contract specified that he was responsible for the safety of the passengers and crew. He took that responsibility seriously and had the engineering background to know what he was talking about. When it became clear that the design was faulty, he wrote a report that demanded additional testing before he would authorize voyages. The company tried to get him to retract the report and then fired him when he would not. He filed an OSHA complaint, alleging that his firing was in retaliation for raising safety concerns. The company then sued him, claiming he was trying to defraud the unemployment office. Lacking the deep pockets of a corporation, he dropped his complaint in exchange for them dropping their suit.
Think about that for a moment — an employee files a complaint based on retaliation for raising safety concerns, and a company is allowed to sue him for an unrelated matter. Not defend itself on the merits in front of OSHA or other safety experts, but force them to hire a lawyer and defend themselves in court. That is a system designed to bury safety concerns and ensure that employees never, ever pushback against management’s disregard for the safety of employees.
Oh, and the report filed with OSHA? They passed it onto the Coast Guard, where apparently nothing was done with it. I cannot help but wonder if the Admiral’s regulatory expertise helped ensure that outcome?
There you have it: five people dead for no reason. The popular story is the arrogance of a rich man killing the people who trusted him. And that is true as far as it goes. But scratch the surface, and you find that the system failed at every point. The overwhelming power capital has to abuse employees, to corrupt people who should be guardians of the public good, to force employees to toe the company line regardless of its truth or impact on other human beings, their ability to avoid regulations on little more than their own word — all combined to ensure that a vessel that should never have been allowed to operate was allowed instead to murder people.
It does not have to be this way, of course. We could value the lives of the people who do the work. We could prevent companies from filing retaliatory lawsuits against employees. We could enforce regulations on companies that operate in our territory regardless of where they incorporate. We could build a robust safety net so people aren’t as desperate for a livelihood. It would mean taking on the power of capital, never an easy thing. But the story of the Titan is not just the story of a rich man’s hubris. It is the story of how the collective hubris of rich men have warped society so deeply that safety, employee lives, and commonsense could find no purchase. If we don’t fix that, those same flaws in the system will continue to lie in wait, ready to hurt or kill more people.