Does the BP Spill Validate Socialism?


The Washington Post's E.J. Dionne uses the BP oil disaster as a teaching moment about the S-word:

[T]his is an excellent moment to recognize that our arguments pitting capitalism against socialism and the government against the private sector muddle far more than they clarify […]

"Deregulation" is wonderful until we discover what happens when regulations aren't issued or enforced. Everyone is a capitalist until a private company blunders. Then everyone starts talking like a socialist, presuming that the government can put things right because they see it as being just as big and powerful as its Tea Party critics claim it is.

But the truth is that we have disempowered government and handed vast responsibilities over to a private sector that will never see protecting the public interest as its primary task. The sludge in the gulf is, finally, the product of our own contradictions.

An interesting theory. Meanwhile, here are some interesting facts:

* The 1980s anti-regime movement in Socialist Hungary was animated largely by environmentalist concerns.

* Czechoslovakia, and especially the you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it environmental hellscape of Northern Bohemia, was one of the most polluted places on earth during Really Existing Socialism. Since the re-introduction of capitalism, it has become one of the most rapidly improving.

* Kazakhstan is a nightmare.

* Raise your hand if you remember Russia's colossal 1994 oil spills in the arctic, and how people then judged Moscow's clean-up efforts.

* Speaking of which, there was a comprehensive study [PDF] of the world's oil spills between 1986-1996 published in April 2003 by the Joint UNDP/World Bank Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme. One of its many unsurprising findings was that in the former Soviet Union (FSU), 60 percent of oil spills weren't even measured for environmental effects. One-party states, oddly enough, are not very responsive to their citizens' desire for transparency, let alone environmental health. Furthermore,

Even if only the 42 incidents with information about effects on the soil are used, 24 out of the 42 incidents or about 57 percent resulted in significant pollution, compared to 36 out of 122 incidents or 30 percent in Western Europe. […]

The severity of spillage, measured by the amount of oil spilled, is higher in the FSU than in Western Europe. The reason could be poor contingency planning and delayed responses to spills when they occur; poor detection procedures; long distances between emergency shutdown valves; or the larger average diameter of pipelines in the FSU than in Western Europe. […]

[T]here are more mechanical failures and operational errors in FSU than in Western Europe. This could be due to the utilization of poor pipeline materials, poor construction standards, poor supervision, or lack of clarity of responsibilities in the legislative and regulatory framework. The higher number of spills in the FSU could also indicate that the Russian pipelines examined in this study are older than lines in Western Europe.

* Wait, did the study just dare to suggest that capitalist-country regulations are better than socialist-country regulations? Yes, it sure did:

Russian regulatory and monitoring regimes are more fragmented, less accountable, and less able to quickly delegate responsibility to the relevant agencies when spills occur.

To sum up: Capitalism does not = "no regulations and no role for the federal government during an environmental catastrophe." Socialism does not = "better environmental stewardship and quicker clean-up efforts." The only "muddle" on this question is the stuff between E.J. Dionne's ears.