Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Soap box

At some point every night for the last few weeks, I have turned to StraightMan and said: "I just don't get it."

I believe that I am not entirely hyperbolizing when I say that I live if not in fear of, then at least in anxiety about messing up. For example, just the other week, I was making lists of my students' grades in each class, checking them twice, the whole Santa Claus and naughty-and-nice maneuver. I do not like messing up for a range of reasons. Like, I do not relish receiving rude e-mail from irritated or irate students, but also, I figure assigning grades to students in a clear, consistent, and fair manner is just part of my job, and I like to be good at what I do. So, call it not fear or anxiety, but conscientiousness.

Which brings me to that I just don't get it that anyone, esp. anyone as extravagantly paid as the executives at BP, is allowed to make mistakes at all, much less at the colossal level that we are witnessing today.

Being the thoughtful anthropologist that he is, StraightMan suggests two readings of the situation, one generous and one that could be described as either cynical or realistic:

The generous reading. The executives and engineers and everyone down the line actually are conscientious about their jobs, but being human, they will commit errors. Making mistakes, in and of itself, is to be expected - which, to mix my metaphors, is why there are multiple links in the chain that check and balance each other.

So, the BP disaster is an example of how a series of relatively minor "ordinary" mistakes, made during the day-to-day on the job, can accumulate catastrophically. Also, it is an example of what modernity means - the speed and scale at which we produce, distribute, and consume being ever faster and greater, so that the ripple effects of our errors are felt that much faster and greater.

Not to mention taking and managing risk is what BP does as part of the day-to-day on the job. Risk being what puts us in the way of ordinary and extraordinary fortune and misfortune. Everyone benefits, or potentially benefits, from risk taking. I mean, it was no doubt a risk to leave the trees and go bipedal. In the day-to-day on the job, financial institutions take calculated risks, in part that they will not be called on their deals. The Meltdown of 2007 illustrates what happens when the takers and managers of risk make a mistake. The spillover affects everyone.

So, I wish the pundits would stop calling the BP disaster Obama's Katrina. This is more like his Lehman Brothers or his AIG. Which, by the way, he also presided over containing.

The cynical / realistic reading. Wherever you happen to stand on the political spectrum, I think it is generally the understanding that an important and necessary role of government is to protect and defend the interests of We the People. Now, We as the People might disagree about how exactly this happens and what it means to protect and defend and even which people, but I think this is an underlying principle of the good that government can do and be. In 2007 and again today, We the People see what happens when government's ability (and arguable, even will) to defend and protect Us has been itself so devastated.

How could this happen? I just don't get it, but We the People need to understand and to know.

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