Fouling the Gulf—And Much More

Making the worst of a bad situation


Every crisis is an opportunity for someone. The giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is one for both Democrats and Republicans, who are shaping the same facts to fit very different narratives.

Democrats see it as an example of the dangers of petroleum addiction and unchecked capitalism. Republicans think it shows the administration is proving both its excessively cozy relationship with Big Oil and its chronic ineptitude.

But they may both miss the larger vein of popular sentiment that this mammoth catastrophe taps. It's one of a series of horrifying, infuriating, and preventable debacles that has served to spread disillusionment and disgust with important institutions.

Rather than generate a search for solutions, it feeds the notion that there are none. It sows a sense of helplessness in the face of events that hurtle out of anyone's control.

BP was drilling for oil at depths that only recently were impossible. The company had solved the puzzle of how to carry out extraction a mile underwater. Unfortunately, it neglected to devise a reliable way to cap an unplanned blowout at that depth. It's as though the Apollo engineers landed men on the moon without being entirely sure how it would get them back.

So the problem has rapidly expanded, as the smart folks in charge turn out to be not so smart, the government is unable to discharge its obligation and ordinary people who had nothing to do with the failure suffer the consequences. Hubris induced leaders to take big chances without appreciating or preparing for the likely consequences if they turned out to be wrong—which they were, in spades.

This is not a new story but a recurring one. It describes the invasion of Iraq. It describes the failures that led to the destruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

It describes the financial crisis that led to the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. It describes the explosion of the federal budget and the government debt in the last two years.

The aftermath of each event was chaos and pain, which seemed to surprise no one more than the architects of each failure. But the cost of their errors ended up being borne by those beneath them—soldiers in Iraq, homeowners in New Orleans, workers in companies far removed from Wall Street, and taxpayers whose liabilities multiply like rabbits.

Those at the top, by contrast, get off easy. George W. Bush earns $7 million for his memoirs, while Goldman Sachs remains in business, making record profits.

Time and again, we are led into uncharted territory by leaders of one kind or another. We end up wandering in the wilderness while they proceed to the Promised Land.

The culprits bring to mind the description of the Buchanans in The Great Gatsby: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Is it any wonder that angry populism and dark paranoia now dominate our discourse? Is it any wonder that so many citizens harbor so much distrust for established institutions? In 1966, four out of five Americans trusted government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Today, four out of five do not.

The disenchantment is not just with politicians. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that most of us have negative opinions of financial institutions, large corporations, the national news media, and the entertainment industry.

Even scientists have no great credibility. The more climate specialists converge in alarm about global warming, the less public support they find for measures to counter it. Asked to make sacrifices by experts who claim to know what they're doing, a lot of Americans think they should go hug a tree.

None of this facilitates rational policymaking or sensible use of our imperfect knowledge. It just fosters cynicism, nihilism, and conspiracy-mongering. It suggests that honest, well-intentioned effort is a waste of time.

It leaves us all feeling like a Louisiana beach—drenched in filth and very badly used.