There's an important political lesson in the Surfside condo collapse disaster

There's an important political lesson in the Surfside condo collapse disaster
Government of Florida / Public domain

A little after midnight on June 24, Champlain Towers South, a condominium in Surfside, Florida, started talking. Tremors, creaks and two booms alerted a few residents to grab their wallets and run. Eleven days later, although officials hope for survivors, there aren't any. Aided by a controlled demolition of what remained, 28 corpses have been found. One hundred and seventeen people are still missing.

It's a tragedy that will transcend partisanship. But should it transcend politics? At National Review, senior writer Charles CW Cooke said yes: "What of our ongoing debates about the merits of our two political parties, or our fights over infrastructure or regulation?" he fumed. "Doesn't this incident fit in there? No, it does not."

Nonsense. Of course this disaster is political and ideological, because it is a story about government neglect. By holding builders, inspectors, real-estate agents, bankers and condo boards to high ethical and legal standards, governments protect our lives.

Yet for decades conservative public officials have insisted that individuals make better decisions than the government. Public regulation, they say, is bad for business. And where conservatives cannot deregulate in civil society, they simply do not enforce.

According to investigative reports, it turns out that the town of Surfside, and Miami-Dade County, both failed to inquire and failed to act, allowing Champlain Towers South, and its condo board, to not reckon with the building's obvious deterioration.

Much had been made of natural corrosion of buildings from salt water. But were flaws in the foundation overlooked by Miami building inspectors paid to look the other way? Why was a private inspector's 2018 warning about corroded re-bar, pooling water and cracked concrete not acted on? And why was it submitted only to the town, and not the county, as required by law? Why did Surfside Building Official Ross Prieto assure the condo board, elected residents at odds over a $15 million assessment, that the building was "in very good shape" and that they could delay much-needed repairs?

The tragedy of Champlain Towers South is only the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of a corrupt Miami real-estate industry, supercharged by international money laundering since the 1970s. By 2016, over 50 percent of Miami real-estate deals were cash purchases. The new owners were shell companies created by Florida law firms that shielded the identities of overseas clients—often politicians associated with corrupt regimes, like that of Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro—stealing public money.

When the point of land and real-estate development is to make dirty money clean, shortcuts, sloppy inspections, building code evasions and payoffs are sure to follow. And a range of people who are licensed and regulated by the state of Florida—lawyers, bankers, real-estate agents and construction companies—are implicated.

This, too, is politics. Over time, officials from both parties have been involved. And yet, partisanship may also be playing a role. Increasingly, Democrats are committed to investing in the public, Republicans are not, and Republicans are in charge in Florida. Although Miami has a Democratic mayor, Miami-Dade County itself has become increasingly conservative. This accelerated after 2016, resulting in Donald J. Trump winning a county that had been reliably Democratic for generations—and the state.

Florida's political leadership—its governor, its legislature, its senators, and over two-thirds of its representatives—has cohered around core conservative principles, like low taxes (which make it hard to fund necessary projects) and deregulation of business.

And they act on it. In January 2019, when 28 residents of Champlain Towers South had 18 months to live, Republican governor and potential 2024 presidential candidate Ron DeSantis announced a "deregathon," calling on the state's 23 professional licensing boards to do even less to protect the public interest than they were doing already.

While DeSantis has not denied global warming like his predecessor, Republican Rick Scott, he dawdles and prevaricates. Labeling climate-change policies a "leftist agenda," he refuses to promote a climate policy that requires taxation and public spending—all a ball-and-chain in the party of the former president. "I am not a global warming person," Rick Scott told reporters in 2018. "I don't want that label on me."

Miami now suffers "sunny day floods" in which rising seas push up through porous land where aquifers have run dry, rotting buildings from below. This makes it likely that more luxury oceanfront condos are in as precarious shape as Champlain Towers South was prior to its collapse. One North Miami Beach condo tower was evacuated last week over safety concerns. And it's hard to imagine there aren't more.

The tragedy at Champlain Towers South shouldn't be partisan football. But there is a lesson about politics in this tragedy, and it is this: Individuals do not make the best decisions for themselves. They make self-interested ones. Government is there to make the hard political decisions that individuals cannot, or will not, make on their own.

Politics is how we, as a people, make good on a social commitment to care for each other. Because it wasn't just re-bar and concrete that failed in Champlain Towers South: those tremors, creaks and booms were the sound of Florida politics breaking.

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