Friday, May 7, 2010

Is Government The Problem?

Have you heard about the big oil leak off of the coast of Louisiana? The one that is threatening to destroy what's left of the wetlands that are the only barrier between a major American city and the ocean? The same wetlands that oil companies have been destroying for years by building pipelines and canals through?

Well, it turns out that the oil companies were warned repeatedly about the possibility that precisely what happened would, well, happen.

WASHINGTON — Federal regulators warned offshore rig operators more than a decade ago that they needed to install backup systems to control the giant undersea valves known as blowout preventers, used to cut off the flow of oil from a well in an emergency.

The warnings were repeated in 2004 and 2009. Yet the Minerals Management Service, the Interior Department agency charged both with regulating the oil industry and collecting royalties from it, never took steps to address the issue comprehensively, relying instead on industry assurances that it was on top of the problem, a review of documents shows.

Anyone who paid any attention to the Bush administration's attitude towards regulation during the last decade would hardly be surprised. That attitude could be summed up as: "There will be no regulation."

In the intervening years, numerous blowout preventers and their control systems have failed, though none as catastrophically as those on the well the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig was preparing when it blew up on April 20, leaving tens of thousands of gallons of oil a day spewing into the Gulf of Mexico

Agency records show that from 2001 to 2007, there were 1,443 serious drilling accidents in offshore operations, leading to 41 deaths, 302 injuries and 356 oil spills. Yet the federal agency continues to allow the industry largely to police itself, saying that the best technical experts work for industry, not for the government.

This is how adversarial relationships work, you see.

When the government charges you with a crime, if you hire a lawyer who is smarter than the prosecutor, the government just lets your defense lawyer write the prosecution's case.

In tournament chess, the player with the most experience gets to make his opponent's move as well as his own.

Hell, I don't understand why bank robbers aren't allowed to write the laws on bank robbery, since they arguably know more about the subject than anyone.

(Actually, the banks do write the laws governing banking, and that's pretty much the same thing.)

The free-market fraudsters, of course, want you to believe that regulation by government is bad because they'll just fuck it up. And they'll use this case as evidence, because in this case, they did fuck it up.

But what they won't tell you is that they fucked it up because the free-market fraudsters told them to.

They ran the government almost singlehandedly for eight years. Their goal was to let corporate interests do whatever the hell they wanted to, and to hand them money for doing nothing whenever possible. And they succeeded.

Are you an investment bank that wants to gamble in an unregulated derivatives market with a notional value equal to 40 times the size of the entire US economy? Go right ahead, and we'll bail you out with taxpayer money when you implode.

Are you an international drug company that feels like marketing dangerous pharmaceuticals to people who don't need them? We'll slap you on the wrist and send you back out to kill again.

Are you a defense contractor who's tired of having someone in the government making sure you're not ripping off the Pentagon? We'll just tell those in charge of watching to close their eyes.

Are you an oil company that doesn't want to spend a few more bucks on safety equipment to prevent catastrophic environmental disasters that will affect millions of average Americans? We'll just tell the inspectors to defer to your best judgement, as though you actually have the welfare of the American people in mind when you despoil their land.

Over and over again, you will hear that government is incompetent and can't do anything right.

But here's the thing. People don't suddenly get stupid when they work for the government. The government invented the atomic bomb. It predicts the weather. It built the interstate highway system. It put a man on the fucking moon 40 years ago, using a computer that probably had less power than your $30 mp3 player. It sure as hell can figure out when BP is blowing smoke up its ass, if its told to do so!

And that's the thing. It has been told not to figure that out, over and over again. Regulators have been told not to regulate derivatives, so they did not. Regulators were told not to pay attention to the billions and billions of dollars of Iraqi reconstruction funds that were handed out to Halliburton on pallets of cash for work that was never done, so they did not. The Department of the Interior was told not to argue with BP about whether they were doing enough to prevent this kind of disaster, so it did not.

And now we have one more disaster on our hands; one more in a long line of disasters that could have been prevented by government, but were not because the free-market fraudsters and their paid-for politicians made sure that government would not be allowed to interfere in the making of money, unless they were just going to be handing more of it out.

The sad thing is that this has been a long time coming. It's not just the Bush administration; it started with Reagan's bullshit line that government was the problem, and continued through Bush I and Clinton, and then was accelerated in a frenzied looting of the American public during the eight long years of Bush II. And Obama doesn't seem to even know where to begin to fix it, and I have no idea if he even wants to.

But after a 30-year long evisceration of government's ability to govern, there really isn't much left there institutionally. The free-marketers would have you believe that government is bigger than ever, but it's not. It spends more than ever, but instead of using that money to actually do things, it just hands it over to corporations and tells them to do whatever they want with it.

It's going to be a big challenge to get the regulatory arm of government rebuilt. It will take time, and it will take money. Rich people who run oil companies will have to pay more in taxes. But it must be done, and the sooner we start on it, the better.

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