There’s no pique quite like the British kind. The eyebrows arch, the throat clears, the spittle flecks, and the rhetoric swells portentously. It’s not for nothing that the coronation robe of the country’s wheezing monarchy is purple.
But when you combine this tradition of jowly hauteur with the smug shibboleths of neoliberal free-trade dogma, well, then the royal fireworks really start combusting. Just witness the Economist‘s June 17 opinion leader on the White House’s deal with BP to create an escrow fund of $20 billion to cover the company’s liabilities in the enormous Gulf oil spill.
The oration begins with some low rumblings about a spreading “corporate bloodlust” on the populist Yank plains. Just ponder the blood-curdling evidence of the Jacobin spirit now loose in the old colony: “An outfit called Seize BP has organized demonstrations in favour of the expropriation of BP’s assets,” the magazine notes. “Over 600,000 people have supported a boycott of the firm on Facebook. Several of BP’s gas (petrol) stations have been vandalized.”
That’s right: Demonstrations in support of an unworkable policy option are by themselves ample signs of trouble-in 50 cities, no less! Why, the nation has never seen anything of the like before. And of course nothing says “expropriate the expropriators” like a mass Facebook endorsement; that’s why it’s a dead certainty that Betty White will be this century’s Liberty Leading the People. As for the alleged travesty of “several of BP’s gas (petrol) stations” being desecrated, well, never has the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words seemed quite so apt.
But the editorialist (it’s a convention of the Economist never to use bylines, and now we can appreciate why) is only getting warmed up. With the populace thus convulsed into full-pitchfork mode, the nation’s invertebrate leaders have fallen cravenly in line, he or she argues: “Mr. Obama decided to â€˜inform’ BP that it must put adequate funds to meet all compensation claims into an escrow account beyond its control, although he has no authority to do so.” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, meanwhile, “on even thinner legal ice, suggested that the government would hold BP accountable not just for the harm directly done by the spill, but also for the jobs lost in the oil business thanks to the freeze on oil drilling in deep water that he himself has imposed.” Why, it’s no wonder that “corporate America, normally quick to raise government intrusion, has kept strangely silent, as though businessmen are afraid of the consequences of sticking their heads above the parapet.” That’s right: They just might get their heads blown off. Or, you know, be invited to enter voluntarily into a revenue sharing scheme; whatever.
While our put-upon anonymous tribune of the market does allow that, yes, “Mr Obama is not the socialist the right claims he is,” the American chief executive stands accused of something arguably worse: In a word, he is “cementing business leaders’ impression that he is indifferent to their concerns. If he sees any impropriety in politicians ordering executives about, upstaging the courts, and threatening confiscation, he has not said so.” And this telltale silence, this brazen-sob-indifference can only mean one thing: “The collapse in BP’s share prices suggests that he has convinced the markets that he is America’s version of Vladimir Putin, willing to harry firms into doing his bidding.”
OK, then: where to begin? For one thing, all this talk of federal “intrusion,” “harrying,” court-upstaging and (shudder) confiscation is what’s known, when similar tactics are employed in the private sector, as a bargaining posture. Sure, it’s possible that Obama officials could have showed the sort of acrobatic deference to oil-industry interests that their predecessors in the Bush White House had. But somehow, “OK, let’s do it your way-now where are the junkets, the sport tickets, the meth and the porn?” seems something shy of a results-oriented approach. And just to digress a bit: If this brutishly silent manhandling of CEOs qualifies Obama as a KGB-trained abettor of oligarchs, what designation does the touting of a fictional WMD arsenal as a casus belli earn in the Economist‘s global demonology chart? Super Satan Times Three, I’m guessing.
You’ll note as well that for all the talk of bloodlust and browbeating, the deal struck for the $20 billion escrow account was just that-an agreement between both the government and an outlandishly negligent oil company. One can argue, of course, that the company in question had little in the way of real latitude in striking more favorable terms. But just maybe, that might give a much-needed pause for searching introspection the next time a global energy concern elects to do business in an outlandishly negligent fashion.
As for the abuse of executive authority alleged to be defiling the sanctity of yon American market, it’s a funny thing about escrow accounts: They are largely an innovation of the federal government in the first place, put into common use in mortgage closings thanks to the establishment of the FDIC under the 1933 Glass-Steagall Banking Act. And the Commerce clause has been found more than sturdy enough to uphold all sorts of federal rearrangements of the free-market order, from the minimum wage to the Tennessee Valley Authority to Rand Paul’s hated Civil Rights Act.
What’s more, the federal government has commonly employed the so-called super settlement model for hastening payouts and reducing civil litigation exposure for polluting companies ever since the idea was incorporated into the 1990 extension of the 1980 Superfund Act signed into law by the that rabid Bolshevik George H.W. Bush. The feds have been able to get polluters to step up the settlement process by reminding them, ahem, that the Superfund act gives the EPA authority to treble civil damages in pollution cases. While most liability enforcement in the Gulf spill looks to fall under the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which Congress approved in response the Exxon Valdez spill, jurisdiction isn’t always clear cut in a spill of this magnitude, especially with untold barrels of toxic dispersants thrown in for good measure.
It’s safe to say, at any rate, that in sizing up the reach of federal authority in environmental cleanup matters, our British cousins have very little idea of what the fuck they’re talking about.
Nor does it seem remotely plausible, as is noted elsewhere in the Economist diatribe, that the Yanks’ anti-BP vitriol “has a xenophobic edge.” The sole evidence cited in this connection is the abundance of “venomous references to British Petroleum” when the firm officially adopted the shorthand form of its name in 1998. And of course, when a corporation adopts an acronym for its name, it abolishes in the same fell swoop the ability of those letters to signify anything at all; somewhere in BP’s corporate charter, I’m sure it’s stipulated that the glyph-like symbols that now make up the company’s name mean nothing more than “double hump” and “hump on a stick.”
And after all, our editorialist goes on to claim in what can only be described as a magisterial crescendo of petulant whining, “vilifying BP only gets in the way of identifying other culprits, one of which is”-wait for it-“the government…. Shoddy oversight clearly contributed to the spill, and an energy policy which reduced the demand for oil would do more to avert future environmental horrors than fierce retribution.”
No argument here. Though for the record, we should note the surpassing strangeness of the Economist complaining out of one side of its mouth about perilous White House “indifference” to business interests while calling out of the other side for the very sort of regulatory crackdowns, and long-term policy priorities that business has long and loudly decried as the mortal enemy of its interests.
But what qualifies this disingenuous outburst as what Brits might call “the topper” is the notion that somehow private-sector industries play no role in rendering much of latter-day regulatory enforcement a dead letter. I’m afraid any casual inquiry into just how federal drilling enforcement got to be so shoddy leads one in astonishingly short order back to BP.
I suppose I should have noted far earlier that last year I was laid off by the far-seeing sachems of the Economist Group, and therefore I might be supposed to have something other than a dispassionate reason to quarrel with their vision of the righteous market order. But really I was just waiting to mention that episode at the end here so I could compare them to, oh, let’s say, Czar Nicholas.