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.