Tuesday, June 01, 2010


You know you're going to get nothing of value from David Brooks today when, in the course of talking about the unchanging video of the oil spill, he writes:

... it feeds into the anxiety that there has been an unhappy marriage between corporations and government officials, which has had the effect of corrupting both.

Both? Both? Look, I know it's hard to write for a mainstream newspaper without compulsively following up every sentence with "On the other hand...," but really -- is Brooks arguing that massive multinational oil companies are more corrupt than they would be if they'd never had to consort with government regulators? Is he arguing that, absent regulation, they'd be Lincolnesque and Capraesque, fastidiously dotting every safety i and crossing every oversight t, all on their own? Government made them cut corners?

But then we read further and Brooks heads off on a tangent that's even more preposterous. He thinks we're a nation of pundit-wonks who are, at the same time, hysterical, overwrought emotional basket cases; he thinks we're carefully trying to calibrate our views on interventionist government using categories learned at the Kennedy School of Government, but, because we're emotional wrecks, we contradict ourselves:

Most important, the plume exposes the country's core confusion about the role of government.

When this country was born, the founders laid down strict roles for the federal government and the president. But over the years, the roles of government and the presidency have expanded.

As a matter of conviction, the country is deeply uncomfortable with these expansions. Operationally, on the other hand, the country has become accustomed to the new programs and to the new presidential role.

In times of crisis, you get a public reaction that is incoherence on stilts. On the one hand, most people know that the government is not in the oil business. They don't want it in the oil business....

On the other hand, they demand that the president "take control." ...

At some point somebody's going to have to reach a national consensus on the role of government. If this disaster teaches anything, it is that we are a venturesome, entrepreneurial society. We rely on corporations like BP to bring us energy. At the same time, it is clear that even well-meaning corporations sometimes take shortcuts when it comes to controlling pollution and protecting worker safety.

So we want government to regulate business. We want regulation to be strong enough to reduce risk but not so strong as to stifle innovation....

We should be able to build from cases like this one and establish a set of concrete understandings about what government should and shouldn't do. We should be able to have a grounded conversation based on principles 95 percent of Americans support. Yet that isn’t happening....

What the hell is he talking about?

We're not "deeply uncomfortable" with government having regulations that require oil companies to take precautions to avoid spewing 19,000 barrels of oil a day into our waters. We're not "deeply uncomfortable" with requiring oil companies to file disaster contingency plans that are based in reality, not on an utterly phony sense of what's feasible in the event of a disaster. We can conceive of a regulatory regime that includes both effective risk management and "venturesome," macho, spirited, roistering, phallic entrepreneurialism, thank you very much.

Maybe we expect too much from government when the whole system breaks down, or turns out to be too corrupt to work. But we don't have an unrealistic expectation of how government and industry ought to be able to work together. Just as we think that Hormel can make huge dollars selling us canned chili that nevertheless doesn't ever cause fatal food poisoning, and Johnson & Jonhson ought to be able to rake in big bucks selling medicines that don't endanger our children, we think BP ought to be able to drill a freaking well without creating a disaster so big no one can contain it, and that the government ought to have the laws and personnel and integrity it needs to make sure that doesn't happen. Maybe it's harder than we think to manage that, but I don't think we're confused or conflicted. We know what we want: capitalism, well regulated. We don't need a "grounded conversation" about this.

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