Friday, June 11, 2010

Regulation Babies

I've been thinking a lot about how the discussion of the BP disaster has played out.  One thing that seems to be conspicuously absent is the simple notion that there is a very ideological narrative to how this all happened.  Some people are angry at BP.  Others are angry at Obama.  This was clearly an accident, and as such things go it could have happened 10 years ago, or ten years from now.  But given BP's safety record, and the corruption at the Mineral Management Service (MMS), it was clearly an avoidable accident - one we could have easily predicted.

I think the only serious debate to have here is over ideology. All things being equal, as long as you have reasonably competent people in power, it doesn’t matter whether they are republican or democrat.
The differences arise out of ideology. If a leftist representative thinks the only way to do something well is by having the government do it, then they will be less able to take advantage of what the market might bring to the table. If a rightist thinks the only solution is less government, they will be less able to take advantage of what the government has to offer.

Modern leftists are perfectly comfortable with markets functioning freely as long as there is no fundamental need they are not meeting, or if they present a threat to the environment or public. Modern rightists, while comfortable with government to a degree, have moved much further in the direction of no-compromise free marketeering.

This is exemplified by the rhetoric we’re all familiar with: “Government is bad”, “Government can’t do anything right”, “The worst words one can hear are, “I’m from the government, I’m here to help”, etc. You would have to go back more than half a century to find anything similar on the left, i.e. “Business is bad”, “Business is corrupt”, etc. You will find specific reference to corporations, which is comparable. But even then, it isn’t the capitalism per say but the form it takes when incorporated.  Furthermore, most of what the government does is additive, in that were it to cease, no private market would fill the void.

So regarding oil spills, and any other man-made disaster, there is a very clear line you can draw between the degree to which an administration is opposed to regulation of industry and the implementation thereof. So, while a case could be made that Democratic presidents and congress weren’t tough enough on financial or environmental regulation, the fact of the matter is that the left has a built-in concern with making sure that the excesses of business are kept in check. The extent to which they are able to get any regulation at all is often tampered by the extent to which the right is shouting – in this case, “Drill, Baby! Drill!”  The previous administration was packed full of people who had a basic philosophical opposition to the very jobs they were supposed to be doing.  This would be like sending pacifists to fight a war.

When regulation inhibits growth, the left must take ownership of that. Of course, the argument there is that what the right often deems “growth” comes via externalizing costs. In the case of BP, we may have enjoyed a small (tiny?) amount of growth because regulations were being dodged – whether because the MMS was being paid off in whores and coke, or some other reason, and that allowed business to move more quickly than it otherwise could. But even a fool can see that that bargain was one that ultimately didn’t pay out very well.  You can't have it all.  You either have to maybe sacrifice some growth, or you get stuck with billion-dollar catastrophes.  To the extent that we are unable to come to this conclusion, we aren't acting like adults.

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