The oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has been highlighting for me a very interesting paradox in how we understand the concept of responsibility:
BP repeatedly disregarded safety problems, according to a new damning investigation from ProPublica that was copublished with The Washington Post. Documents about internal safety investigations leaked to ProPublica by “a person close to the company” show a pattern of neglect and a culture skewed toward silencing whistle-blowers.
The investigations described instances in which management flouted safety by neglecting aging equipment, pressured employees not to report problems, and cut short or delayed inspections to reduce production costs.
That article was from a month ago, even before Texas Congressman Joe Barton expressed regret that BP was being pressured to take responsibility for the spill with a $20 billion fund set aside to cover the damage.
We often point to how the law treats corporations as equals to individuals as a major problem that creates skewed outcomes within our legal system and a dangerous downstream effect on society. But I’m not sure that that alone captures the depth of the problem. The problem is that we have two separate notions of what it means to be responsible – and that individuals and corporations are held to very different standards.
We make a lot of laws in this country that focus on our individual behavior. We zap speeders on the freeway and set up red light cameras. We fine people for jaywalking or drinking a beer on the sidewalk. We make people wear helmets on motorcycles and seat belts in their cars. The value of these restrictions are sometimes debated (and I certainly don’t like some of them), but they almost always have the broad support of the public – and few politicians dare to challenge the necessity of these laws that require responsibility on our part, both to ourselves and others. Government is seen as being the hammer necessary to force people to be responsible citizens.
But when it came to the years leading up to the devastating oil spill that wrecked both the environment and the economy of the Gulf Coast, the government was completely hamstrung in its ability to get BP or its partners to exercise even a minimal amount of responsibility, or even punish them when their previous irresponsibility led to actual damage (like when the Texas City refinery blew up, killing 15 people).
Part of this happens through outright corruption, but part if it is also from a belief that if we hold companies responsible with regulations, we’ll make it too hard for them to succeed and move our economy forward. Following this idea to an extreme, we now treat corporations far more kindly than we treat individuals. It has become an internalized double-standard that government protects society by holding individuals responsible, but endangers society by holding corporations responsible.
This article from last weekend in the New York Times shows how easy it is for companies like the ones at the heart of the Gulf oil spill to exploit this tendency:
With federal officials now considering a new tax on petroleum production to pay for the cleanup, the industry is fighting the measure, warning that it will lead to job losses and higher gasoline prices, as well as an increased dependence on foreign oil.
But an examination of the American tax code indicates that oil production is among the most heavily subsidized businesses, with tax breaks available at virtually every stage of the exploration and extraction process.
According to the most recent study by the Congressional Budget Office, released in 2005, capital investments like oil field leases and drilling equipment are taxed at an effective rate of 9 percent, significantly lower than the overall rate of 25 percent for businesses in general and lower than virtually any other industry.
Jack N. Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, warns that any cut in subsidies will cost jobs.
“These companies evaluate costs, risks and opportunities across the globe,” he said. “So if the U.S. makes changes in the tax code that discourage drilling in gulf waters, they will go elsewhere and take their jobs with them.”
Can you imagine if individuals were treated the way we treat oil companies? Sure, your honor, I killed a busload of children while driving drunk, but if you make me pay too step a penalty or force me to stop drinking and driving again, I’ll just take my productivity to another country!
Even within the White House, which is supposedly run by anti-business socialists, this skewed mindset has a foothold:
I was on Good Morning America this not-so-good morning, doing what I could. But I was struck by something that George Stephanopoulos said: he claimed to have been speaking to an administration official who asserted that what we need to get businesses investing is for business to know that the government has stopped — presumably, that means no new spending, no new regulation, whatever.
GS is a careful guy, so this must be true. And it’s shocking — not that people are saying this, but that someone inside the administration is saying it.
It’s garbage, of course: businesses are refusing to invest because they don’t see enough demand for their products. And administration economists know that it’s garbage. But obviously some people in the WH — I’m guessing a political person, but who knows — have bought the right-wing line hook, line, and sinker.
In the meantime, while we cower in fear of potentially spooking these fragile businesses who can’t survive unless government becomes completely subservient to their every whim, we can’t even extend unemployment benefits to the folks who aren’t being hired by any of these great, glorious businesses. And this may highlight the full extent of our double-standard. Politicians see spending money on subsidies for oil companies as being necessary to help our economy, but see spending money on the unemployed as a waste, even though the latter belief is completely baseless. It’s as if we could have the perfect economy by keeping the corporations perfectly happy but jettisoning all these pesky human beings weighing down the system.