A few days ago, the U.S. Justice Dept. brought its first arrest in connection with the BP Horizon oil spill that occurred on 4-20, 2010. In connection with the worst off-shore spill in U.S. history, the first arrest is well overdue. However that the arrest was for the deletion of text messages is troubling. Understand that (if true) the deletion of text messages and corresponding coverup by a high level engineer who was part of a team tasked with halting the oil spill is by no means excusable. However, Obstruction of Justice is like tax evasion — if you don’t have the evidence for the actual crime, often times you get ’em for the cover up or the failure to pay taxes. Serious crimes, indeed, yet the convictions are not based upon the ultimate crimes we really care about as a society.
That the worst environmental disaster in this century, and the worst oil spill in the United States’ long history in oil refinery and production, has resulted in just one arrest of a relatively high level employee, yet who is by no means the boss. A senior engineer who deleted text messages from his phone. After 11 deaths, upwards of 70 billion dollars in economic damage, and an intangible amount of environmental damage, a single arrest for a senior engineer who deleted messages from his phone, makes Kurt Mix seem less like a scape goat and more like a scape blue whale.
As noted previously – burning down the house is Party Foul # 1 – and while the rigs’ explosion leveled devastation upon states, families, businesses, the person that is “BP” (because businesses are people) walks free while its low level employee looks at 20 years of jail time, even though Mix likely has little to do with causing or preventing the ultimate explosion. If corporations are people, shouldn’t the corporation be arrested when crimes are committed? Or those responsible for the ultimate criminal negligence?
We have noted a disturbing trend occurring in American society which is that corporate interests and corporations in general are being increasingly granted the privileges of citizenship and the protections of the Constitution yet without the corresponding responsibilities or accountability that goes with citizenship. While corporations increasingly have the right of free speech, free association, and corporate interests play larger roles in political discourse through the “corporate capture doctrine” (aka regulatory capture), the externalities produced by such activities often have a devastating effect on the surrounding communities and economies, who simply are so disbursed or poorly funded that those affected by the harms or delicti simply go overlooked.
The choice therefore, becomes ours as a society – do we simply want to allow certain corporations to continue to unleash harmful consequences onour planet, for short term benefit that may result in poluted lakes, air, streams, rivers, oceans, all of which not only cause various diseases and ailments but are also litterally cooking the planet, or do we promote corporate accountability in a manner that can encourage free enterprise and protect the planet’s future? While the second seems like the logical choice, the argument in favor of the first is that the planet is inevitably moving towards “green” energy sources, and that we are simply “bridging the gap” and we all use energy, so we are all responsible for its damages on the planet.
This argument is simple sophistry, logical trick. We all use energy, yet we all do not profit from it. The devastation of a planet which belongs to all of the natural or human world, to which we owe our lives, should not be encouraged for any reason – even for profit – if for the simple fact that such an approach will do us in at the end.
Economics is called the dismall science because of its basic approach to human nature — essentially that humans act in a “rational way” as first proposed by Adam Smith and his “invisible hand” — dictates humanity’s ultimate downfall because there are not enough materials to go around and eventually humans will eat themselves to death (like the song American Eats Its Young, by Funkadelic).
However, this rule is based simply on the primacy of the dollar, that humans act in ways to promote their short term gain in terms of profitability. In the late 60’s Garrett Hardin pointed out the Tragedy of the Commons, namely that humans frequently act for short term benefit in ways that do not serve the long term interest of the public or even the individual.
Economics, at the end of the day, is simply a social science – it makes certain assumptions as to how humans act, and postulates, through models, what to expect into the future. Modern economics simply presumes that humans act in a way that holds the dollar above all else. While considered a “science,” it is simply a Darwinian social model developed out northern based societies in which humans were often at odds with their environment, and viewed their environment as hostile.
This self-defeating psychological paradox that is the Tragedy of the Commons (i.e. that humans who can effectively look to the future would act in ways that are negative for long term survival) displays how economics truly is the “dismal science.” It envisions a world in which we act for the short term dollar above all else.
The rationale is as follows: namely, that we have to use so many resources to stay alive, and the decision is ultimately based upon the notion that others are taking the resources, so I should too. The lack of a governor leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy – the fear of depletion implies that I must deplete as quickly as possible.
The most recent examples seem to be highlighted in energy policy. Deepwater Horizon’s explosion was facilitated by cost cutting and questionable oversight, and the results from the explosion were devastating. If corporations are people, then corporations should be responsible for their negative effects. They enjoy the benefits of doing business, so they should also have to deal with the burdens. The Tragedy of the Commons, namely that the commons in England were overgrazed because it was in each individual sheppard’s interest to keep their flock as large as possible and graze as much as possible, until the commons became barren, can be avoided through taxation or resource management. Simply, if you enjoy the benefits of labor, you also have to account for the burdens as well.
Horizon is going to take upwards of 20 years (potentially) before it is cleaned up and dealt with, and it is impossible that all of the individuals who were harmed will be fully compensated (if simply they lost their jobs and livelihoods, this psychological damage can never be recouped). Fracking has been proven problematic (see the EPA’s finding in December, 2011, that horizontal hydro-fracking resulted in contamination), mainly because those engaged in the extraction of natural gas do so through using highly toxic chemicals that are pumped directly into the ground and inevitably leach into the ecological systems around the drilling areas. The approach therefore, is simply, create a system in which actors are encouraged to prevent negative consequences or participate in effective oversight.
Here are some approaches:
- Create a system of environmental policing whereby state or federal authorities can impose regulatory penalties upon actors that pollute the air, water, or ground. By transferring these costs away from the public at large, the corporate actors are encouraged to do business and extract minerals or other resources responsibly. The EPA has authority over water, yet its powers have been increasingly limited recently, it is exempt from directly regulating horizontal fracking, and conservative / industry favorable politicians, including various Republican presidential candidates, have expressed desire to further limit the EPA’s authority.
- Require companies to account for their polution or create limitations to the amount of air polution corporations are permitted to release. The Clean Air Act currently covers polution, as regulated by the EPA, yet it continues to be under attack from industry proponents.
- Since corporations are people, those individuals who failed to remedy or take investigatory action should be held criminally liable, such as the individual directors or officers. Sarbanes Oxley, in the wake of the Enron scandal, constructed criminal liability for those engaging in accounting fraud for any publicly traded businesses. Likewise, fraudulent or negligent activity in terms of the environment should be met with criminal consequences.
- Create a reward system so that employees (aka “whistleblowers”) who report negligent activity or questionable business practices are encouraged to come forward in ways that can protect the environment. For example, in Pennsylvania, there are no whistleblower laws protecting individual employees who might report violations of good standards or potential polluting activity. In fact, the new laws passed in Pennsylvania prevent doctors from disclosing with the public what potentially harmful chemicals are in fracking fluids.
Ultimately, for humanity to succeed in the long term, we need to recognize that all are responsible for their actions, and that all are equal, in the law, at the party, or otherwise. If corporations are people, it is time for them to hold the same responsibilities as well.