Saturday, May 29, 2010

"Socialism vs. Capitalism" and the BP Mess

[by Mr.Hengist]

One of my favorite columnist piñatas at the WaPo, E.J. Dionne Jr. (co-king with Eugene Robinson for that title), has written another column that could use a few whacks with the Mr.Hengist stick. Going by the promising title, “Gulf oil spill offers a lesson in capitalism vs. socialism” E.J. sounds a herald of trumpets for his fisk-worthy beclowning. Let’s have at it!

So who is in charge of stopping the oil spill, BP or the federal government?

Ooh! Ooh! I know! British Petroleum, unless and until the federal government takes over. OPA Section 4201 amended Section 311(c) of the Clean Water Act provides the POTUS (delegated to the USCG or EPA) with three options:

- Federalize the spill and perform an immediate cleanup.
- Direct the spiller's cleanup activities.
- Monitor the spiller's cleanup efforts.
Furthermore, the USG determines the level of cleanup required.
[PDF link & H/T Mark Levin]

See? That’ wasn’t so hard. E.J.’s not so sure, though:
The fact that the answer to this question seems as murky as the water around the exploded oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico suggests that this is an excellent moment to recognize that our arguments pitting capitalism against socialism and the government against the private sector muddle far more than they clarify.

That is to say that E.J. Dionne and his liberal readers are muddled because they are ignorant of the federal statutes relevant to this issue, but that's no impediment to their expressing the usual righteous indignation and outrage. In this case, E.J. seems to be suggesting a socialism vs. capitalism cage match. Don’t think his cheerleading of socialism makes it OK to call him a socialist, though. We know how socialists hate to be called socialists. Some kind of hate crime, or racism, or something.

E.J. continues:
Many tragic ironies are bubbling to the surface along with the oil. Consider the situation of Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican conservative who devoutly opposes the exertions of big government.
"The strength of America is not found in our government," Jindal declared in his response to President Obama's February 2009 address to Congress. "It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens."
But with his state facing an environmental disaster of unknown proportions, Jindal is looking for a little strength from Washington. His beef is that the federal government isn't doing enough to help. "It is clear we don't have the resources we need to protect our coast," he said this week, expressing his frustrations with "the disjointed effort to date that has too often meant too little, too late."
You can't blame Jindal for being mad. But will he ever acknowledge that "compassionate hearts" were not sufficient for coping with this catastrophe?

Here’s a pretty obvious strawman that E.J. offers because, well, he knows his readers are unlikely to spot it. Liberals, who crow about their unique appreciation of nuance, seem to think that the Conservatives are anarchists when they advocate “limited government,” as if to snidely say, “You want Federal disaster relief? Hypocrite wingnuts, whatever happened to ‘getting government off the backs of the people`?”

The quote from Gov. Jindal was hardly ironic, though; it was in response to POTUS Obama’s Feb 24th, 2009 address to Congress, noting that during the Katrina rescue efforts an un-named bureaucrat tried to prohibit a volunteer sea rescue effort for lack of insurance and registration. Sort of like how the EPA tried to block BP from using a dispersant it had already approved. BP was using a lot of it, you see, and the EPA was suddenly concerned that it was toxic, so they ordered BP to find another one. The EPA expressed no advice which one they had in mind, if any, or how to instantly procure it in large volumes. That is to say, the petulant and meddlesome EPA had no alternative to offer but they nevertheless ordered BP to instantly find and apply an alternative. In contrast, little girls only wish for ponies. Gov. Jindal and right-wingers only wish the government would step out of the way when they aren’t being constructive, which was the point he was making a year ago, and that point is just as relevant today.

Did he ever ask BP how prepared it was for something like this? Or was he just counting on the company's "enterprising spirit"?

Gov. Jindal probably didn’t ask BP how prepared it was for something like this because, after all, that was the responsibility of Federal agencies like the EPA and the MMS, which is to say that he had no authority in such matters. Federal authorities did not, of course, leave disaster response preparations entirely up to private corporations, or at least they weren’t supposed to do that, but the BP spill has revealed that both industry and government were woefully unprepared. Dionne would do well to ask, for example, why the Federal government had no fire booms on hand, despite a Federal plan dating back to 1994 that called for their immediate use when dealing with a major Gulf oil spill.

For its part, the Obama administration has not sent a consistent message. On Sunday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar proclaimed outside of BP's headquarters in Houston: "If we find they're not doing what they're supposed to be doing, we'll push them out of the way appropriately."
Not according to Adm. Thad Allen, the national incident commander. Speaking the next day at the White House, Allen observed: "To push BP out of the way, it would raise a question: Replace them with what?"
Exactly. While Allen may not be a political philosopher, he spoke with the sophistication of one during an interview with CNN.

To say that the Obama administration “has not sent a consistent message” understates the revisionist history in which they’ve been engaged. The Federal government has been relying on the entirety of the oil industry to address this problem, not just BP.

"What makes this an unprecedented anomalous event," he said, "is access to the discharge site is controlled by the technology that was used for the drilling, which is owned by the private sector."
So there you have it: "Do something!" citizens shout to a government charged with protecting the environment in and around a Gulf of Mexico that is nobody's private property. Yet the government, it seems, can't do much of anything because the means of stopping the flow of oil are entirely in the hands of a private company. BP was trusted to know what it was doing with complicated equipment that, it would appear, it either didn't understand very well or was willing to use recklessly.

There is nothing to stop the Federal government from researching and developing drilling and disaster mitigation technologies. The Federal government relies on private industry because that’s where knowledge and expertise are to be found; or, to put it another way, we don’t rely on the Federal government to do much of anything because they don’t know what they’re doing. It’s not true to say that “the means of stopping the flow of oil are entirely in the hands of a private company” because it was not the means, but the responsibility, which was handed off to private industry. There are some early indications that this responsibility was mismanaged by BP, but I trust that the future investigations will shed more light on that.

The technology used is controlled by a private company because they've paid to own or lease it. If we had to rely on the Federal government to provide this technology we'd solve the problem of their not having access to it, but to what end? They don't have the expertise to utilize it in any meaningful way, and more than likely the problem would be moot because the technology simply wouldn't be available for use in the first place. Innovation is not a strong suit of government, to say the least.

Deep water drilling is a relatively new and not well-understood technology. Off-shore drilling is easier and has an excellent safety track record, and drilling on land is easier and safer still, but we are left with deep water drilling because, as Charles Krauthammer sums it up,
Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama's tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we’ve had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
So we go deep, ultra deep -- to such a technological frontier that no precedent exists for the April 20 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico.

We need energy, period. We get most of our energy from oil, unfortunately. Unfortunately, alternative “green” energy sources are technological toddlers requiring many more years of development to be practical on a large scale, if they can get there at all. That leaves us with oil.

There’s also nuclear power, which is now safe, efficient, and environmentally manageable. Environmental foolishness has kept us from building the nuclear power plants we’d need to dramatically reduce our reliance on oil, and one of the first acts of the Obama Administration was to kill the future American nuclear power generation by closing the best place to safely store the waste: Yucca Mountain.

In short, this environmental mess is the indirect result of environmentalist prohibitions that were supposed to protect the environment. Nice work, greenies!

E.J. goes on,
Belatedly, the Obama administration has realized that citizens can never accept the idea that their government is powerless.

It takes years of brown-nosed shilling for Democrats to be able to write a sentence like that without a trace of embarrassment. As for me, I just threw up a little in my mouth.

"Deregulation" is wonderful until we discover what happens when regulations aren't issued or enforced.

This is an excellent example of rhetorical disingenuousness. E.J. Dionne does not believe that deregulation is wonderful. What’s more, Dionne seems oblivious to the question of how to get effective enforcement of existing regulations. Certainly, it’s not enough just to have regulations, but when Dionne advocates ever more regulations it’s often the case that existing relevant regulations have had lax enforcement, and the solution to that is certainly not more regulations. Perhaps we should put this another way: when regulatory bodies fail, why do Liberals always insist on more regulation instead of questioning their own faith in the regulators?

Everyone is a capitalist until a private company blunders. Then everyone starts talking like a socialist, presuming that the government can put things right because they see it as being just as big and powerful as its Tea Party critics claim it is.

I’m charmed by this line in E.J.’s piece. Here’s a good example of what we call “The Liberal Bubble”. “Everyone starts talking like a socialist” as far as E.J. knows, and that’s a function of his ignorance of what his political opposition has to say. Furthermore, we who want a smaller government also believe that government competence is inversely proportional to its size. The Tea Partiers are right: our government is very powerful, and bigger than it ever has been, but it is neither particularly competent nor efficient.

In this BP debacle, only fools believe that our government can fix the problem, but believe they do and so they cry out for government to “do something.” The government has no solution, and the people with the best shot at fixing it, the oil industry, have pooled resources and are hard at work trying to come up with one. That’s why I don’t begrudge POTUS Obama going golfing and taking vacations while this operation is underway; it’s not as if he could personally do anything or exercise any of his authority in a way that would do any good. What I do resent is his mouthing of platitudes, as in, “We will not rest until this well is shut, the environment is repaired and the cleanup is complete,” because all it amounts to is, “blah, blah, blah.”

But the truth is that we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task. The sludge in the gulf is, finally, the product of our own contradictions.

When I read this kind of sloppiness I’m reminded of how often I think that Liberals live in a make-believe world of their own, dark fantasies. We haven’t “disempowered” government; in fact, government oversight and power has steadily been on the increase over the course of decades. There is no power that government needs which it does not already have which would speed the solution to this mess.

Disappointingly, Dione does not deliver on his “capitalism vs. socialism” promise so I won’t belabor the point, but hard-core socialist countries like the former Soviet Union and present-day China have environmental histories that are unqualified large-scale disasters. I’ll give Europe credit for having a good environmental record in general, generally on a par with our own, but need I remind E.J. Dionne that “BP” stands for British Petroleum?


David Norman said...

The real problem is that the issue is not, and never has been, "Socialism Vs. Capitalism", it is "responsibility Vs irresponsibility". Corporations have proven time and time again that they cannot be trusted to behave in the public interest without regulation,and government has proven time and time again that it cannot behave responsibly when it comes to enforcing regulation, or choosing regulation wisely. It was irresponsible of BP to draft a Disaster Preparedness Plan for the Gulf Of Mexico that turned out to be a copy of their Disaster Preparedness Plan for the Arctic Ocean (even if it was funny to see their level of concern for the impact the Gulf drilling could have on the Walrus population). It was irresponsible of the appropriate gov't agencies to not even notice. It was irresponsible of the Oil Companies to demand behind closed doors that they not be required to drill relief wells at the same time as main wells in deep seas, as they are required to in Canada, and it was irresponsible of Dick Cheney to grant them that disposition behind those closed doors.

No one takes responsibility anymore, for anything. I'd love to say I have an answer for that but I don't. The one thing I am sure of, however, is that you won't find it in the false choice of "Capitalism Vs. Socialism".

Mr.Hengist said...

Hi David,

I think we’re in broad agreement on some of the particulars you cite. I’d note that BP may be in violation of their legal responsibility to file a DRP for the GoM, although I’m neither a lawyer nor a regulator. No doubt the lawyers and regulators will look into that with the passing of time.

I think the answer to the problem of “taking responsibility” may be in harsh penalties with the backing of judicial redress. If BP executives were in some way personally liable for gross dereliction of their corporate duties which result in massive environmental damage then that might give them sufficient incentive (although, in this case, the walruses seem to have been well covered). Avoiding bankruptcy or jail time can do wonders that way. File a false tax return and Joe Citizen can pay hefty penalties and go to jail, but if Joe Corporate files a worthless DAP he’s not at much personal risk. Ditto for Joe Regulator who rubberstamps said worthless DAP.

As a caveat, I would only want such mechanisms to be in play when the stakes are extremely high; facing such harsh penalties over small stuff would be unacceptably draconian.

Unfortunately, I have no answers for preventing “Government for Sale” issues. Government can make great laws and then waive them off, and payoffs to politicians can be sufficiently indirect as to preclude bribery charges.