Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Government is the problem until you need a solution: some belated thoughts on the BP-Transocean oil catastrophe

As black oil oozes toward Louisiana's coast, it's worth remembering what the state's governor said a year ago deriding the federal government's role in disaster relief:

Today in Washington, some are promising that government will rescue us from the economic storms raging all around us.

Those of us who lived through Hurricane Katrina -- we have our doubts...

The strength of America is not found in our government. It is found in the compassionate hearts and the enterprising spirit of our citizens. We are grateful for the support we have received from across the nation for the ongoing recovery efforts. This spirit got Louisiana through the hurricanes and this spirit will get our nation through the storms we face today...

Democratic leaders in Washington -- they place their hope in the federal government. We place our hope in you, the American people. In the end, it comes down to an honest and fundamental disagreement about the proper role of government. We oppose the National Democratic view that says the way to strengthen our country is to increase dependence on government. We believe the way to strengthen our country is to restrain spending in Washington, to empower individuals and small businesses to grow our economy and to create jobs.

Today, not only has government rescued us from the economic storm, but another disaster--this one caused by very large businesses that were empowered to grow their earnings from the ocean deep--has put Louisiana's coasts in its cross-hairs, forcing Governor Jindal to beg the federal government for help:

Governor Jindal today met with DHS Sec. Napolitano, Dept. of Interior Sec. Salazar, EPA Administrator Jackson, White House Energy Dir. Browner, Coast Guard's Admiral Landry, and BP officials at the Shell Robert Training & Conference Center in Robert, LA. The Governor received an update on the efforts to respond to the oil spilling into the Gulf and stressed the need for federal support resources that have already been requested by the state from federal agencies.

Governor Jindal said, “I appreciate Secretary Salazar, Secretary Napolitano and Secretary Jackson for coming down to Louisiana and seeing first-hand the response efforts. As I told the President yesterday, we’re urging the federal government and BP to deploy more resources to help mitigate the impact of the oil spill that is threatening the coast of our state...

I do have concerns that BP’s current resources are not adequate to meet the three challenges we face and I have urged them to seek more help.”

Well well well, look who's come crawling back.

Okay, that's too snarky for a serious situation. Truth be told, I applaud Governor Jindal's change of heart--and I mean that. The reason is that Governor Jindal has learned a key lesson the hard way--a lesson that's so far eluded his tea party compatriots. The lesson, simply put, is that for some problems, government is the only viable solution.

It's not that government can solve all our problems. It can't. I agree with the Governor that in most cases, the strength of our nation is found in our people and businesses rather than our government. But there are some problems that are too big for compassionate individuals--and too unprofitable for enterprising businesses--to address. In other cases problems result from a failure of collective action, in which behaviors beneficial to individuals cause collective harm to the group. And it's in these situations that government has to step in.

Hurricane Katrina was the epitome of such disasters: an act of Nature brought on by no fault or laziness of the people it devastated, and which wrought destruction on a scale beyond the capacity of individuals and businesses to cope.

Similarly, the BP-Transocean oil volcano seems likely to outstrip the resources of even the world's 4th largest company, threatening unmitigated disaster to the innocent inhabitants of the Gulf Coast--human and otherwise. And unfortunately, as Governor Jindal is finding out, it seems the federal government will have to play a larger role in cleaning up BP's mess than any of us would like it to in an ideal world.

(Of course, disaster mitigation isn't the government's only tool for preventing oil spills from reaching the shore--a far easier solution is preventing such drilling in the first place. Then again, prevention's a tough strategy when then-Representative Jindal was busy sponsoring the Deep Ocean Energy Resources Act of 2006 (H.R. 4761)to open even more ocean to drilling. Maybe that's one he wants to reconsider as well).

The bottom line: None of us wants a bailout (at least those of us who are not publicly-traded investment banks), and no one enjoys having the government tell them what to do. No one wants to beg the government for help, and few find life on the dole fulfilling. But sometimes there's no other way to solve a problem than government action--when disaster strikes, it's just a little more obvious.

Is it not the fundamental role of government to protect its citizens from external threats, whether imposed by a foreign army, a profit-seeking company, or Nature herself? If Tea Partiers decry the role of the government in responding to disasters like Katrina and BP-Transocean (Rush Limbaugh, for instance, said that the oil spill should be "left alone and left out there"), then what exactly do they think government should do? Besides torture, tap phones, and harass Hispanics, of course.


Yes, government creates jobs

Fight Club and coal company death panels: the value of a statistical life


  1. Sorry, what you claim is "snark" is just too cruel and mean-spirited--too reminiscent of that repulsive strain of social Darwinism/corporatism which masquerades as a coherent political philosophy. If you're laughing at the destruction of an ecosystem and the almost certain impoverishment of fishermen and shrimpers, then you're really, truly not helping anyone. There should be no schadenfreude, no "just deserts," none of it. Or are you only your brother's keeper if he's above the Mason-Dixon line (you'd have to cross it first, in that case)?

  2. I doubt Governor Jindal has learned anything or had a change of heart. He like the other blind to reality conservatives will return to spouting their empty platitudes about relying on people instead of government faster then you can say "inadequate safety and backup controls". Provding government funds to "help" BP as Jindal wants is just another form of a bailout. Red states continue to consume more federal dollars then they pay in taxes. There's nothing new under the sun here, its the same story that's been playing out for decades. Republicans always want whats best for the top corporations and 1% of taxpayers.

  3. Liked your comment on Friedman today so much, I posted it on MY site. Glad to see your comment is the most recommended on Friedman's.

    The Constant Weader at www.RealityChex.com

  4. Hopefully this didn't sound like schadenfreude. The purpose was to point out the hypocrisy of southern states' politicians for criticizing big government right up until the point that they need it. I of course would never wish an environmental catastrophe on anyone.