FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Reckless Drilling

While BP has taken some heat over its spill in the Gulf, it is remarkable how limited the anger actually is. Many defenders of the company have made the obvious point: It was an accident. BP did not intend to have a massive spill that killed 11 people, devastated the Gulf ecosystem and threatens the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of workers.

Of course this is true, but it is also true that a drunk driver who runs into a school bus did not intend to be involved in a fatal collision. As a society, we have no problem holding the drunk driver responsible for a predictable outcome of their recklessness. Driving while drunk dramatically increases the risk of an accident. This is why it is punished severely. A person who is responsible for a fatal accident while driving drunk can expect to face many years in jail. Even someone who drives drunk without being in an accident often faces jail time because of the risk they imposed on others.

This raises the question as to why the public seems to accept that the top officials at BP, who cut corners and made risky gambles in their drilling plans, should be able to “get my life back,” as BP CEO Tony Hayward put it. The people who lost their livelihood as a result of BP’s spill will not get their lives back, even if BP does pay compensation. Certainly the 11 workers killed in the original explosion will not get their lives back. Why should the people responsible for this carnage be able to resume their lives of luxury?

There are two separate questions. The first is a narrow legal issue concerning the extent to which Hayward and other high-level executives can be held criminally liable for the accident. It may be the case that the laws are written so that even if companies commit gross negligence that results in enormous harm, including multiple deaths, top officials are not criminally liable. This is a question about the status of current law.

The second question is a moral and economic one about what the laws should look like. From either standpoint, it is very difficult to see why we would want to say that reckless behavior that would be punished with long prison sentences if done by an individual, somehow escapes serious sanction if done as part of a corporation’s pursuit of profit. Do we give a “get out of jail free” card to people when they are wearing the hat of a top corporate executive? This makes no sense.

Just to take the extreme case, suppose that Tony Hayward was racing back to the office after a three-martini lunch in order to prepare the paperwork for a big contract that he had just negotiated. On his way, he hits a school bus, killing 11 children. Would it make sense to absolve him of blame for these deaths because it was the result of his efforts to raise BP profits? And, if that doesn’t make sense, why does it make sense to absolve him of responsibility for the deaths of 11 oil rig workers that were the direct result of his decision to cut corners in order to increase profits?

We can ask the same question about the responsibility of the top executives of the Massey Energy Company, whose shoddy safety practices led to the explosion that cost 29 workers their lives. We should also ask why the top executives of UtahAmerican Energy Company weren’t subject to criminal prosecution when their recklessness led to the deaths of six miners and three rescue workers in a mine collapse in 2007. In these cases and many others the problem was not simply bad luck. In all three cases, the accidents were the direct result of reckless behavior on the part of the management of these companies. They ignored standard safety measures in order to save money.

Of course most acts of recklessness don’t result in fatalities, just as the vast majority of incidents of drunk driving do not end in fatal collisions. Nonetheless, when they are caught, we still punish drunk drivers for their recklessness. This would be a good pattern to follow more generally. The executives of the major oil companies whose clean-up plans for the Gulf of Mexico involved procedures for rescuing walruses would find the matter far less humorous if it involved jail time. Is there any reason it should not?

The problem is that government has been controlled for far too long by soft on crime conservatives. They are willing to look the other way and give break after break to criminals, as long as they are the white-collar types who belong to the best country clubs.

This must come to an end. The country can’t afford special privileges for high-class criminals. It is time to take a tough stand on criminals who inhabit the corporate suites. We have to tell the top executives at BP, Massey, Goldman Sachs and elsewhere that if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

DEAN BAKER is the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR). He is the author of Plunder and Blunder: The Rise and Fall of the Bubble Economy and False Profits: Recoverying From the Bubble Economy.

This column was originally published by The Guardian.

 

WORDS THAT STICK

?

 

More articles by:

Dean Baker is a macroeconomist and co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He previously worked as a senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute and an assistant professor at Bucknell University.

June 18, 2018
Paul Street
Denuclearize the United States? An Unthinkable Thought
John Pilger
Bring Julian Assange Home
Conn Hallinan
The Spanish Labyrinth
Patrick Cockburn
Attacking Hodeidah is a Deliberate Act of Cruelty by the Trump Administration
Gary Leupp
Trump Gives Bibi Whatever He Wants
Thomas Knapp
Child Abductions: A Conversation It’s Hard to Believe We’re Even Having
Robert Fisk
I Spoke to Palestinians Who Still Hold the Keys to Homes They Fled Decades Ago – Many are Still Determined to Return
Steve Early
Requiem for a Steelworker: Mon Valley Memories of Oil Can Eddie
Jim Scheff
Protect Our National Forests From an Increase in Logging
Adam Parsons
Reclaiming the UN’s Radical Vision of Global Economic Justice
Dean Baker
Manufacturing Production Falls in May and No One Notices
Laura Flanders
Bottom-Up Wins in Virginia’s Primaries
Binoy Kampmark
The Anguish for Lost Buildings: Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel
Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire
Jonathan Cook
How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions
Ajamu Baraka
North Korea Issue is Not De-nuclearization But De-Colonization
Andrew Levine
Midterms Coming: Antinomy Ahead
Louisa Willcox
New Information on 2017 Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Deaths Should Nix Trophy Hunting in Core Habitat
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Singapore Fling
Ron Jacobs
What’s So Bad About Peace, Man?
Robert Hunziker
State of the Climate – It’s Alarming!
L. Michael Hager
Acts and Omissions: The NYT’s Flawed Coverage of the Gaza Protest
Dave Lindorff
However Tenuous and Whatever His Motives, Trump’s Summit Agreement with Kim is Praiseworthy
Robert Fantina
Palestine, the United Nations and the Right of Return
Brian Cloughley
Sabre-Rattling With Russia
Chris Wright
To Be or Not to Be? That’s the Question
David Rosen
Why Do Establishment Feminists Hate Sex Workers?
Victor Grossman
A Key Congress in Leipzig
John Eskow
“It’s All Kinderspiel!” Trump, MSNBC, and the 24/7 Horseshit Roundelay
Paul Buhle
The Russians are Coming!
Joyce Nelson
The NED’s Useful Idiots
Lindsay Koshgarian
Trump’s Giving Diplomacy a Chance. His Critics Should, Too
Louis Proyect
American Nativism: From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump
Stan Malinowitz
On the Elections in Colombia
Camilo Mejia
Open Letter to Amnesty International on Nicaragua From a Former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience
David Krieger
An Assessment of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit
Jonah Raskin
Cannabis in California: a Report From Sacramento
Josh Hoxie
Just How Rich Are the Ultra Rich?
CJ Hopkins
Awaiting the Putin-Nazi Apocalypse
Mona Younis
We’re the Wealthiest Country on Earth, But Over 40 Percent of Us Live in or Near Poverty
Dean Baker
Not Everything Trump Says on Trade is Wrong
James Munson
Trading Places: the Other 1% and the .001% Who Won’t Save Them
Rivera Sun
Stop Crony Capitalism: Protect the Net!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail