The Gulf Coast oil spill and America’s anti-regulatory culture
I couldn’t but shake my head as I listened to the latest reports about the magnitude of the oil spill in the Gulf Coast on my way into work this morning (on foot!). Speculation about the outcome of the spill, which is on track to surpass the well-known Exxon Valdez spill and possible become the worst spill in American history, ranges in its dire predictions from really, really bad to devastating.
On ABC’s This Week, after some discussion about whether the Gulf spill is Obama’s Katrina and whether he should own the issues (Al Sharpton and George Will: no, Bill Maher: yes) and a comment by Matthew Dowd about how this is another demonstration of government failure, Katrina Vanden Heuvel made an important point,
I think what we’ve seen is that the risks are too great. Offshore drilling is the problem no the solution. This is not Katrina — 1,500 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless. I think more important is to understand that we now need a government that is going to regulate a company, BP, which was a serial abuser of workers and of safety regulations. Just like Massey, we need regulations, tough enforcement. We need a government that understands that.
It will come as no surprise that I agree with Vanden Heuvel on that point and I think that is, perhaps, a touch more subtle than it appears at first glance. Vanden Heuvel isn’t just arguing that tougher regulations are needed, though they are.
What Vanden Heuvel’s argument also contains is the implicit acknowledgment that for the past few decades, the United States has consistently been governed by administrations — be they Republican or Democrat — that have a built in distrust of and antipathy towards regulation.
Indeed, whether one looks at Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton, or Bush 43, there has been a distinct and predominate ideological bent that eschewed regulatory actions and fundamentally shaped the contours of the debate on public policy. And lying within the various crises that have plagued the country in recent years is a core insight: those chickens have come home to roost and this way of doing things does not work.
One begins to wonder how much of a rebuke the Amiercan public needs before something substantial gets done to curb these continuing crises. What is it going to take to shake people up and get them out of their seats?
The answer, of course, is: a lot. And there is good reason why this is the case.
At the center of each of the recent crisis to rock the United States of America, there are specific players. And those players have been pushing for specific things: most commonly, to convince government that it ought not to play a significant role in setting the guidelines for how they do business.
Free speech advocates often suggest that this kind of lobbying and influence peddling is nothing more than Washington’s own market place of ideas. It is often suggested that industry players need a place at the table because they know the business in which they are engaged, they offer important insights, they come equipped with key experience and sharpened arguments about what is to be done.
The other thing industry players come equipped with is money. A lot of money. And money, as they say, talks.
If we look at recent issues facing the country, The Center for Responsive Politics reveals that those who have benefited most and inflicted the most harm have been among the most active in shaping the direction of the debate. Starting with the oil and gas industry, British Petroleum, who does not have what one might call a stellar record on safety issues, was in the top ten of sector contributors to political campaigns and parties in the 2008 election cycle. BP wasn’t the top contributor, by far. But they certainly did alright for themselves.
If we then turn our attention to coal mining — a much smaller sector — we see that Massey Energy, the company responsible for the recent West Virginia mining disaster, also with a fairly spotted record on safety, is in the top twenty of political contributors in the sector. So far in 2010, Massey is actually clocking in at eleventh place.
Andit will come as no surprise that Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, and Citigroup — key architects of the 2008 financial collapse — round out the top three contributors in the 2008 election cycle for the Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate (FIRE) sector. Also in the top ten are Morgan Stanley, the American Bankers’ Association, and Bank of America.
And so in some senses, I think that Vanden Heuvel is actually in agreement with Matthew Dowd’s anti-government screed, though they come at the issue from very different angles. The lesson here — a lesson that Vanden Heuvel and other progressives seem to have had no problem in learning — is that the last twenty-odd years of anti-regulatory rhetoric has very significant and serious impacts that many people are starting to feel in no uncertain terms.
The issue of government representation of the public good isn’t just a political, ideological, and electoral chess game. The outcome of anti-regulatory brinksmanship has been the unnecessary loss of lives, the destruction of families and futures, and environmental damage potentially so overwhelming we’re still trying to wrap our heads around it.
In short, the impacts are very, very real and very, very damaging. And so I think that Matthew Dowd calling this yet another factor in diminishing trust for the efficacy of government is, in some sense, fair ball. Though, like Vanden Heuvel, I come at that conclusion from a very different perspective.
Continued polling numbers that show plummeting trust and belief in government, coupled with a government that is not quite willing to do what it takes to earn that trust and belief leave me worried. Though such suggestions are usually laughed off as ridiculous, I fear that the US government is on the brink of a real and dangerous legitimacy crisis of its own making. Such a crisis will, as in previous cases, have far reaching effects that extend well beyond its own ostensible borders.
And so while President Obama got some laughs at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, things in the Gulf Coast got worse. One wonders what the next crisis will be, how many will suffer as a result, and when there might be a will to own up to how deep the problems go.