Wednesday, June 2, 2010

five thoughts on the BP disaster

1.) It's interesting that a number of liberal and statist pundits cannot distinguish areas where markets struggle and government regulation may be an improvement.

For example, pollution is a problem within voluntary markets because of a lack of enforceable property rights. This leads to what economists call "negative (economic) externalities". As such, government struggle may be an improvement over market struggle. So, then they have some fun-- or think they're scoring points-- by pointing to conservatives and libertarians who would call for regulation in this arena, imagining some inconsistency. Are they hacks or is this done out of ignorance?

2.) There's a big difference between the theory and practice of government-- or in this case, the divorce between the two with respect to the efficacy of government regulation.

Here's the AP's Matthew Daly in the C-J on this point:

Staff members at an agency that oversees offshore drilling accepted tickets to sports events, lunches and other gifts from oil and gas companies and used government computers to view pornography, according to a government report.

The Interior Department report alleged that a culture of cronyism existed between regulators at the Minerals Management Service and the oil industry.

3.) We've pushed oil exploration/development so far off-shore and away from Alaska-- for environmental and/or aesthetic concerns.

As a by-product (a political externality), oil exploration/development has moved into far riskier areas. I don't know the particulars of this situation, but it has to be relatively/exceedingly difficult to build, monitor, regulate, and repair under one mile of water. Here's the WaPo's Charles Krauthammer (hat tip: C-J). The first third of his article makes this point. (The second third messes with BP; the third third with Obama.)

4.) The other day, I was struck by the irony of Katrina hitting a GOP (if not a conservative) president and the oil spill hitting a Democrat/liberal president.

Katrina was a natural disaster-- and conservatives have some trouble with theodicy: why doesn't God intervene more often as we see fit (in our superior wisdom)? There are ready and compelling answers for God's non-intervention in matters of human nature and free will. But for mother nature, the answers are ok but certainly less compelling. Conservatives point to personal responsibility, but in the case of natural disasters, who is responsible-- except in dealing with the aftermath?

The BP oil spill was a human-caused disaster. (Of course, accidents "happen", so the true mix of responsibility and "stuff happens" is an open question.) Liberals are not fond of arguments for personal responsibility, but they are pushing those here. Liberals believe in the efficacy of government regulation, but that has failed here-- through omission and/or commission. Liberals believe that government will tend to work well, if the right people are in place-- but the right people are in place, and it's still a mess.

Anyway, it's interesting to imagine if the disasters had been reversed: Bush with BP and Obama with Katrina. The results wouldn't be any different, but the perceptions probably would be.

5.) It's not fair, but Presidents get blamed for more than they should. (The flip side of the coin is that they get to take more credit than they should.)

Bush took a beating on Katrina; Obama will increasingly take a beating on the oil spill. Krauthammer's essay makes some nice points on this:

Obama is no more responsible for the damage caused by this than Bush was for the damage caused by Katrina. But that's the nature of American politics and its presidential cult of personality...

Moreover, Obama has never been overly modest about his own powers. Two years ago next week, he declared that history will mark his ascent to the presidency as the moment when "our planet began to heal" and "the rise of the oceans began to slow."

Well, when you anoint yourself King Canute, you mustn't be surprised when your subjects expect you to command the tides.

In the WSJ, Peggy Noonan takes a related angle:

The American people have spent at least two years worrying that high government spending would, in the end, undo the republic. They saw the dollars gushing night and day, and worried that while everything looked the same on the surface, our position was eroding. They have worried about a border that is in some places functionally and of course illegally open, that it too is gushing night and day with problems that states, cities and towns there cannot solve.

And now we have a videotape metaphor for all the public's fears: that clip we see every day, on every news show, of the well gushing black oil into the Gulf of Mexico and toward our shore. You actually don't get deadlier as a metaphor for the moment than that, the monster that lives deep beneath the sea.

In his news conference Thursday, President Obama made his position no better. He attempted to act out passionate engagement through the use of heightened language— "catastrophe," etc.— but repeatedly took refuge in factual minutiae. His staff probably thought this demonstrated his command of even the most obscure facts. Instead it made him seem like someone who won't see the big picture....

When your most creative thoughts in the middle of a disaster revolve around protecting your position, you are summoning trouble. When you try to dodge ownership of a problem, when you try to hide from responsibility, life will give you ownership and responsibility the hard way. In any case, the strategy was always a little mad. Americans would never think an international petroleum company based in London would worry as much about American shores and wildlife as, say, Americans would. They were never going to blame only BP, or trust it....

I wonder if the president knows what a disaster this is not only for him but for his political assumptions. His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality. But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: "Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust."...

They thought Katrina was the result only of George W. Bush's incompetence and conservatives' failure to "believe in government." But Mr. Obama was supposed to be competent....


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