Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The best part of last night’s Oval Office speech

If you missed President Obama’s speech last night, televised from the White House, take a few minutes to pop over to the White House's website and watch it.

There was a lot of good stuff in it.

Obama said he was going to make BP pay for the damage they’ve caused. That was great, but it wasn’t the best part.

He talked a lot about how we must transition towards clean, sustainable energy as fast as we can. Also great, but not the best part.

For me, the best part was when he talked about the problems that led to the Deepwater Horizon disaster, starting with the Minerals Management Service. The best part was when he described the MMS as being:
“…emblematic of a failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility.”
That’s the money shot, right there.

President Obama, wielding the grandest of all bully pulpits in American political life, took the opportunity to call out the moral bankruptcy underlying so much of what motivates right-wing strategy. For the right wing, it’s always about removing regulation so businesses can raise their profits, no matter the costs.

As we’ve seen time and time again, and as we’re seeing now in the Gulf of Mexico, when left to their own devices, either through lack of regulation or lack of enforcement, corporations will always find ways to externalize the costs inherent in their operations, so as to pad their profit margins.

“Externalize the costs” is, of course, just economic-speak for “dump the costs on somebody else.” Namely, us.

This has been going on for, well, pretty much forever. Here are just a few examples from the past century.

  • In 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught fire. 146 workers died when they could not escape the ten-story building, because managers had taken to locking the doors to prevent workers from going out for cigarette breaks.
  • In 1913, labor disputes between miners at the Calumet and Heckla mining company in Michigan led to the suffocation and trampling death of 73 people — 62 of them children — when company strike-busters shouted “fire” into the Italian Hall, where the striking union laborers were holding their Christmas Eve party, then barred the exits. The miners were on strike for the right to work only an 8 hour day, for which they wanted $3 in compensation. This was deemed to be too expensive for the company, which in the prior year, had produced and sold 67 million pounds of copper.
  • Let’s not forget a whole litany of coal mining disasters, which have collectively killed hundreds of coal miners through mine accidents in the past 50 years, and have killed thousands upon thousands due to health issues such as “black lung” disease. Most recently, poor safety regulation enforcement at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in Kentucky killed 29 miners in April, 2010.
Toxic waste:
  • In the 1940s and early 1950s, chemical waste dumping (rather than proper treatment and disposal) by the Hooker Chemical company led to horrific health issues and birth defects among the residents of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, NY, which in turn led to the EPA’s “Superfund” cleanup system.
  • In the 1950s and 1960s, California’s Pacific Gas and Electric leaked hexavalent chromium into the water around Hinkley, CA, leading again to a raft of truly terrible health effects on the local residents, and a class action lawsuit famously instigated by Erin Brockovich. PG&E eventually settled the lawsuit to the tune of $333 million, but unfortunately for the citizens of Hinkley, you can’t buy back your health.
  • Oh, and in 1979 there was that whole Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident, which better safety enforcement could well have prevented.
  • 1929’s Wall Street Crash, which caused the Great Depression, made homeless paupers out of literally millions of Americans, and pointed out the glaring lack of regulation in the financial industry. The up-side was that the resulting regulatory framework, the Glass-Steagall Act, kept us out of nationwide trouble for the next 70 years.
  • Nevertheless, in the 1980s, an under-regulated banking system led to the infamous Savings and Loan scandal during the Reagan/Bush years, in which nearly 750 S&Ls collapsed and had to be bailed out by (you guessed it) the U.S. taxpayer.
  • And of course, the current “Great Recession” we’re living through today, precipitated by the dismantling of the Glass-Steagall protections at the urging of big financial corporations.
Oil Spills
  • In 1910/1911, the Lakeview Gusher in California spilled an estimated 123 million tons of oil before it was stopped.
  • In 1977, the vessel Hawaiian Patriot spilled roughly 95,000 tons of oil off of Honolulu, HI.
  • In 1989, the Exxon Valdez spilled about 37,000 tons of oil in Prince William Sound, AK.
  • In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and sunk in the Gulf of Mexico, leaking an amount of oil that is expected to surpass the record set by the Lakeview Gusher, before finally being contained.
Even in our own back yard, right here in Washington State, poor regulation over the construction industry and a complete lack of legal protection for homeowners has led to shoddy home construction that has wiped out the life’s savings of thousands of Washington families.

All of these disasters and tragedies, plus hundreds of others, are attributable either in whole or in part to this same “failed philosophy that views all regulation with hostility” and that puts profits over people in every instance.

So thank you, Mr. President, for calling out this philosophy for what it is: failed, morally bankrupt in every possible sense, and just plain bad for America.

I have no problem with corporations making a profit, so long as they do it under an appropriate regulatory framework with vigorous enforcement. Because time and time again (and again and again and again), history has shown that corporations will always choose profits over people. In the end, it’s you and me who have to pay the price for their greed, and that’s just wrong.


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