There is something odd, I feel, about the outrage over BP’s role in the current monstrosity unfolding in the gulf, and it’s this: in a situation where enormous profits were to be made by retrieving a natural resource and selling it back to the public who rightfully ought to own it, and where there is no real oversight or control of the way this business is conducted and risks are handled, what in the world did we expect this company to do? It’s all good and well to get irate about these people, for being disgustingly disconnected rich fools, but to punish them because they cut corners and neglected enormous risks, is a bit like leaving a little kid alone in a candy store and then punishing him for taking candy and breaking the jar. Yes, it’s wrong, but how could they possibly not have done it? And who in his right mind leaves a kid alone in a candy store?
The basic capitalist assumption, that providing monetary incentives will make companies do what’s best for everybody, is probably fundamentally flawed, but it very clearly is in areas where companies can reap profits while deferring risks and costs to the general public, or where there is an intrinsic conflict of interest. Take the pharmaceutical industry, which is selling products meant to cure people, and who has a clear interest in both new treatable conditions being invented, and ambiguous ones being solidified (cholesterol, anyone? Or do you have too much ADHD to focus on it?) and existing ones not being eradicated or improved. They are reaping astronomical profits on this flawed process through a monopoly enforced by our own governments, claiming that they need such protection in order to be able to operate and innovate in the public good. This from one of the most profitable industries on the planet. It completely baffles me that this is allowed to continue basically unchallenged. But I digress.
This disaster is at it’s heart not a failure of BP, for all the ways BP has failed, as much as it is a failure of a system of letting third parties with particular interests be responsible for the general and public good. Add the inability of humans to properly assess and weigh risks and to handle large numbers, especially under personal incentives, and you get an explosive mix, where corporation executives are asked to do two opposing and very disparate things – maximizing profit and minimizing a detrimental impact that is very difficult to properly assess, with asymmetrical payouts. Like in the banking industry, being successful nets you vast personal gains, but failure gets spread over the whole of society and only affects you personally if it is so humongous as to be inconceivable. And even then, you might be fine, as we are seeing in the recent banking debacle’s profit and bonus fallout. Do we truly expect somebody given the chance of vast personal enrichment under a widely distributed risk to not take that chance? Are we, then, the very idiots we must think that person to be?
Yes, we can rail against factory farmers polluting entire watersheds with runoff urine, and BP destroying entire marine ecosystems, for their unconscionable behavior, and there definitely should be punishment fitting the crime. But more importantly, I feel, we should think about the changes necessary to prevent massively powerful and dangerous industries from shitting golden bricks all over the public good, and figure out how to not allow corporations to sell the welfare of others to their own profit.