Rhetoric watch: Krugman on the disintegration of government

"Allowing our mascot to be hunted to near-extinction since 1849."

In the course of last Friday’s Link Roundup, we mentioned that members of the Department of the Interior tasked with regulating the oil industry were revealed to have “[taken] bribes and engaged in drug use and sex with oil industry officials” in 2008. That was awesome. In his New York Times column today, Paul Krugman promises more cops-‘n-robbers-get-together-to-do-coke-and-shout-out-the-window-of-the-squad-car frivolity with the headline, “Sex & Drugs & the Spill.” It turns out that’s just a come on, though, for a column about how anti-government sentiment can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is the kind of thing you need to do when you’re competing for eyes with Freakonomics. It’s like when Maureen Dowd wrote about the hot, throbbing need for derivatives regulation.*

Krugman is not a monster favorite around Combat! blog, in part because we got in the habit of imagining him reading every column aloud to us at a dinner party attended by Anne Coulter, Hitler and our high school principal. It’s a thought experiment that turns out to be surprisingly conducive to critical thinking, but it also serves to heighten his existing smugness. There is, too, the problem of Krugman’s bias, which can prove distasteful even to persons so biased as ourselves. Consider his opener:

“Obama’s Katrina”: that was the line from some pundits and news sources, as they tried to blame the current administration for the gulf oil spill. It was nonsense, of course.

This country is in mortal danger of running out of straw. I’m willing to accept that the phrase “Obama’s Katrina” got tossed around in the aftermath of the BP spill, although I personally heard it only in the context of refutations. Fortunately, “Obama’s Katrina” is just a “line,” and not a statement—e.g., “The BP spill is Obama’s Katrina,”—and it’s made by “some pundits and news sources,” who seem to be progressively cornering the market on perceived rhetoric. That sort of setup is standard op-ed laziness, but it’s the punchline that’s sheer rhetorical foul play. “…[A]s they tried to blame the current administration for the gulf oil spill,” draws a false parallel. No one blamed George W. Bush for Katrina itself—even if, for a President who could talk to God, he exercised confusingly limited control over the weather. What affronted both the traditional role of government and Kanye West was his response to that disaster. One could easily argue that “Obama’s Katrina” has been his inability to contain the spread of oil throughout the Gulf Coast, or even to seriously chastise the oil’s owners.

Personally, I don’t think that’s the case. Based on my admittedly limited knowledge of petrochemical geology, I’m pretty sure that once the oil gets into the ocean it’s super hard to suck it up. Yet the larger possibility—that the President has not yet dealt with BP in such a way as to make future disasters less likely—does seem reasonable. Consider that, for years, the US Department of the Interior has not required offshore drillers to use the kind of backup valve systems that might have prevented this disaster, that those systems are standard in the rest of the world, and that Interior’s own staff has declared them necessary. Or consider that, in early 2009, the department specifically allowed BP to drill at Deepwater Horizon without a detailed environmental analysis.

That last oversight—funny how the two meanings of the word converge—occurred in the first months of the Obama administration, before his new head of the Minerals Management Service had been confirmed. Krugman regards it as an extension of the suspended oversight of the Bush years, when a coal lobbyist was Deputy Secretary of the Interior and and everyone was doing blow off of baby seals.* While the Deepwater Horizon dispensation may have been part of Bush’s legacy, it happened on Obama’s watch. It’s unfair to ask him to correct all the abuses of the previous administration, but, um, that is what we hired him to do.

Krugman argues that the BP spill and Katrina are the kind of things that happen when a country loses faith in the efficacy of government. It’s an excellent point, and to excuse Obama on the assertion that he inherited a broken system from Bush violates it directly. Bush’s Katrina was his failure to understand that the federal government might be a primary responder to the destruction of a major American city. Obama’s Katrina is the Bush administration. If we don’t hold him responsible for cleaning it up, even when the wind and rain weren’t his fault, we make the same mistake twice.

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  1. “It’s unfair to ask him to correct all the abuses of the previous administration, but, um, that is what we hired him to do.”

    Yeah, and meanwhile, it’s not like he’s had time to do anything, having to push around GOP congresscritters who aren’t just stalling legislation, but coming out and saying that they’ll be actively blocking anything Congress tries.

    Oh, and if you’re curious, yeah, it was Bush’s fault. If nothing else, the fact that his deregulation efforts allowed BP to stop putting in a nice cheap acoustic trigger that would have cut off the flow of oil when the platform blew.

    “I’m willing to accept that the phrase “Obama’s Katrina” got tossed around in the aftermath of the BP spill, although I personally heard it only in the context of refutations.”

    Oh. Well, here, let me help you out

  2. I for one applaud Dan the Man, Leviathan for holding Mr. Obama’s feet to the fire a little. One of my personal pet peeves is when one refuses to hold their party to higher ethical standards than those he or she criticises precisely for having low ethical standards.

  3. @Nameless Cynic Why did you link to that Wall Street Journal article as evidence of the spill being “Bush’s fault”? The article doesn’t mention the former president a single time. The article also doesn’t mention the “acoustic trigger” that, apparently, would have cheaply prevented the spill.

  4. I think the triggers to which Cynic refers might be the failsafe systems that that the Minerals Management system did not require during the Bush administration, despite their being an industry-standard safety measure at that time. In that sense, the BP spill was certainly Bush’s fault.

    However, being at fault is not necessarily a one-man job. As mentioned in the post, it was under the Obama administration that BP received a special exemption from preparing a detailed environmental impact assessment for the Deepwater Horizon drill site. Was he continuing a tradition of mismanagement from the Bush administration? Totally. But you could say the same thing about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, domestic wiretapping, fiscally irresponsible tax cuts for the wealthy, everything.

    That stuff is why Bush was a bad president. To say that something was reprehensible under Bush doesn’t make it less so under Obama. The whole point of being a good president is to correct the mistakes of the bad ones.

  5. @j dott: I apologize. I already knew the background on this. And I just assumed you’d realize that anything prior to January 20, 2009 was under the previous president. Silly of me.

    Under Bush, the Department of the Interior was literally handed over to the lobbyists, like Steve Griles (convicted of lying to Congress in the Abramoff case). Please note the dates mentioned in the WSJ article.

    So while the Obama administration rubber-stamped a waiver to Deepwater Horizon (along with the 80,000 other things signed over from the Bush Administration), the blame for this spill properly belongs to Bush. He’s the one whose Administration said “sure, don’t worry about it. We’re not going to tie your hands with a lot of useless regulations.”

  6. @Nameless Cynic You are claiming that responsibility for the spill belongs to Bush and the WSJ article is not. That is my point. If you’re going to link to an article, it should support your contention. Simply saying that “a bunch of the dates mentioned in this article here are dates before Obama was in office” does not equate to successfully arguing Bush (or even the administration) is at fault for the current spill. Keep in mind, I’m not absolving anyone, I just don’t think you’ve been particularly compelling.

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