Point of View Columns

WWTRD?

The Japanese ideogram for “disaster” also can be translated to mean “opportunity”. Indeed, within every disaster there is indeed an opportunity and at some point sooner than later we will have to learn that the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico presents a once in a lifetime opportunity to change some fundamental aspects about the way that life is lived in these United States.
We can begin with how the interests of the American people are articulated and protected. During the nascent days of what will clearly be a disaster of epic proportions, it seemed as if the federal government had entered into some bizarre partnership with British Petroleum – working together to “fix this thing”. At one point press conferences and professionally congenial and collegial exchanges seemed to be the order of the day.
In a frightening and unfortunate way this kind of perceived relationship made sense in light of the fact that when it comes to the oil industry and off-shore drilling the regulatory processes of the federal government range from inept to criminally incompetent. According to the New York Times the cursory 4-8 hour inspection of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig by the United States Coast Guard (an inspection that is supposed to take 2-3 weeks) was followed by the misguided approval by the Minerals and Management Service (of the United States Department of the Interior) of the blowout preventer without specific information regarding the strength of this critical piece of machinery.
This laissez faire approach is emblematic of the Bush-Cheney days of darkness in this country. But the chummy relationship between government and the oil industry transcends elections and the soaring rhetoric of change – the permanent government is indeed that permanent. Consider that, when the Obama Administration determined to allow for a limited expansion of off-shore drilling, ironically just days before the Deepwater Horizon calamity, the reform and transformation of the historically inept Minerals and Management Service was not even an agenda item.
Of course, now that the Gulf of Mexico is going to hell in a hand basket, there is an opportunity to place the reform and transformation of the MMS on the federal agenda. But hopefully, there will be an embracing of a broader opportunity to examine the relationship between the regulatory agencies and the regulated industries and whether those relationships as they currently exist are in the best interests of the American people.
We have known for years that the MMS has been little more than a toothless and pampered tiger in the eyes of the energy industry. The scandals of a few years ago involving energy industry executives and MMS employees being in bed (literally) and generally carousing and partying as colleagues often do, do not appear to be isolated instances. The refinery explosion in Houston in 2005 and the deaths of miners and oil rig workers this year are sad reminders of the consequences of these cozy relationships.
But there is also an opportunity to look at the regulation of all of the other industries that are important to the daily well-being of the American population. The financial services fiasco of recent vintage can be traced to the shocking lack of oversight of the financial industry. The pandemic of faulty Chinese drywall in American homes, the all too frequent E-coli outbreaks in the national food supply and recently revealed transgressions involving Toyota are clearly signs that a system for protecting the American people is clearly in need of redesign.
The philosophical source for much of the reformation and regulation of the American marketplace began with the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. And it might be useful at this critical point in time to ask what would President Theodore Roosevelt do if presented with today’s BP crisis? WWTRD? As a lifelong student of history I think that a fair answer to that question would entail the following scenario – first and foremost a federal receiver would be appointed to monitor all of the actions of BP America so that the federal government would have clear and unfettered access to all aspects of the response of BP to this disaster. Second, he would demand that the United Kingdom appoint a similar receiver to monitor all aspects of the activities of the parent company, particularly such questionable acts as paying $10 billion in dividends to BP shareholders last week as a multi-billion dollar liability clearly looms in the future. The U.S. receiver could certainly have questioned and quite likely blocked BP’s expenditure of $50 million on its current public relations campaign when those funds could be used for relief and cleanup efforts.
Roosevelt would certainly freeze all assets of BP in the United States pending the resolution of litigation that has barely begun but that will clearly involve billions of dollars of damages. Roosevelt would note that the United States has recently frozen the assets of Saddam Hussein and the government of Iran. Saddam and Iran, after all the rhetorical flourishes, have never visited a scintilla of the destruction and damage on this country that has already been recorded by BP.
Roosevelt would have immediately commenced criminal investigations of all aspects of the BP enterprise using the RICCO statutes so as to classify BP as an ongoing criminal enterprise given its steadfast adherence to a policy of avoiding and deferring safety regulations and procedures that have now endangered the economy of the entire Southeastern quadrant of the United States. And Roosevelt would have blocked the borders of the United States to prevent all key BP executives from leaving this country until their criminal liability could be ascertained.
Perhaps it’s time for President Obama to channel the historical personal of Theodore Roosevelt and craft an answer in his own inimitable fashion to the question of the moment – WWTRD?

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Point of View Columns

Blindness of the Mind

BLINDNESS OF THE MIND

          We learn so much about ourselves during times of adversity. We learn about our sense of self and purpose. We plumb the depths of our determination and perseverance. We learn the truth of the friendship and the love and support of our collective acquaintances, friends, family and loved ones. The same can also be said of a nation.

          During times of stress and trial and tribulation the character of a country makes itself known. The resiliency and resolve demonstrated by the United States during and after the Great Depression and World War II are hallmarks within the entire span of global history. The national capacity for reform and intransigence as demonstrated during the height of the modern civil rights movement also revealed certain American character traits – and the impermanence of imperfection. And as we view the excruciating unfolding of the greatest single environmental disaster in American history there is an opportunity to learn more about this country and about its president and its citizenry and those who would presume to comment on the meaning of it all.

          President Obama has moved with characteristic competence drama-free excellence. As always, his belief in, and commitment to, institutional process and transformation can be seen in the various steps that have been taken by the myriad of governmental agencies and military forces that have been mobilized since the very beginning of this latest crisis in his presidency. Of course commitments to institutional process are rarely the source of inspiration or comfort even though it is institutional transformation that will ultimately mitigate the BP Gulf disaster and it is institutional transformation that will lessen the opportunity for the next disaster.

          Unfortunately, commitment to institutional process and transformation does not serve as a useful platform for the soaring oratory that propelled the President Obama into the political stratosphere. Describing the steps that need to be taken for institutional transformation must seem like the reading of the phone book to the people of the Gulf region who are experiencing immediate and profound suffering.

          If President Obama were more tactile it might make a difference for the moment. If he could more clearly articulate that he “feels the pain” of the fisherman who has lost his livelihood or of the hotel owner who has lost her way of life, it might make a difference. But that difference would be transitory. The institutional transformation needed to manage the energy industries so that coal miners don’t have to die and the wildlife of an entire national quadrant doesn’t have to be destroyed will mean so much more for generations to come.

But that is difficult to explain in a country that has been seduced by sound bites. Transformational process doesn’t translate well in a country that thinks “Where’s the beef?” and “Drill baby drill” are articulate presentations of useful political discourse.

And in the midst of this adversity the critics of the Obama Administration make themselves known to us in a unique and different manner. It was to be expected that the BP Gulf disaster would be billed as “Obama’s Katrina” almost as soon as the first thousand gallons of oil bubbled to the surface. The facts are that the governmental response of the Obama Administration to the oil spill is far superior to anything that occurred after Hurricane Katrina. But facts have never gotten in the way of the likes of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh.

But during the last week of national pain and suffering there have been other revelations. During the past few days Peggy Noonan of The Wall Street Journal and David Brooks of The New York Times have engaged in philosophical extrapolations in order to advance their political ideology. That would be remarkable if it were not also so transparently self-serving. Somehow they have come to the conclusion that the fact that the Obama Administration has not been able to part the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and march on the ocean floor to stem the oil flow proves the inherent limitations of government in addressing the needs of Americans. Incredibly, we are supposed to believe that all of the right wing of the right wing arguments regarding the need to limit the growth of “big government” are ratified by the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico.

I have written in the past about this argument against “big government” and it may be that repetition is akin to whistling into the wind. Nevertheless it should be clear to even the casual observer that the genesis of the BP disaster is related to the lack of sufficient government oversight of the energy industry. It should also be clear to such renowned writers like Ms. Noonan and Mr. Brooks that the root cause of the disaster can be found in the need for a comprehensive and transformative (there goes that word again) change in this country’s energy policies. This is change that can only be effected by the government.

Moreover, only “big government” has the resources and institutional capacity to address huge crises and disasters whether they are in Nashville or the Gulf of Mexico or at the World Trade Center in New York City. Only “big government” can manage the social security system, student loan programs, Medicare in all of its palliative manifestations and, of course, there is national defense.

But I have to wonder at the timing of these commentators who want to take advantage of the suffering of the people of the Gulf to advance their political philosophy. That rhetorical exercise that might be appropriate at an exclusive cocktail reception in Georgetown. But in the real world now is simply not the time to score cheap points when the crisis and the people of this country need real solutions.

Wallace Ford is the Principal of Fordworks Associates, a New York-based management consulting firm and is the author of two novels, The Pride and What You Sow.

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