No, the BP oil volcano in the Gulf of Mexico is not your fault, despite what many pundits will tell you. Back in the 1960s when the environmental movement got going, major US corporations responsible for much of the nation’s pollution decided to fight it by paying for television advertising that urged individuals not to litter, thus implying that pollution is produced by anarchic individuals rather than by organized businesses. It was a crock then and it is a crock now.
You did not demand that BP consistently cut safety corners more than any other petroleum company, thus resulting in the Deepwater Horizon calamity, which could end up costing the economy of the Gulf of Mexico literally hundreds of billions of dollars this year.
How much the Gulf oil catastrophe is not your fault can more clearly be seen if we consider the ways in which a BP refinery in Indiana is threatening the Great Lakes with excess pollution.
The BP refinery received permission from the Indiana legislature to increase its ammonia and silt (infested with toxic heavy metals) output into the Lakes. The increased pollution was part of an expansion of the refinery to allow it to process Canadian tar sands. In addition, BP has illegally spewed extra benzene into the lakes (benzene is a known cause of leukemia) and has also repeatedly broken the law with regard to air pollution standards.
You did not ask BP to dump extra benzene illegally into Lake Michigan (the lakes are connected). You did not agitate in Indianapolis to permit the refinery to expand to handle tar sand, which is all by itself an ecological catastrophe. You did not demand that more ammonia and toxic metals be dumped into the lakes. None of these crimes against nature was your individual responsibility.
Rather, the Indiana legislature passed these laws because of ‘legislative capture.’ That phenomenon occurs when an industry that is supposed to be regulated by a legislature instead pays so much for political campaigns that it captures the members and proves able to write the legislation affecting its interests. Legislative capture explains almost everything that is wrong with America today, from the wars to the difficulty in expanding health care, and from inaction on climate change to the high price of prescription drugs.
Legislative capture is not your fault.
In fact, it is mostly the fault of Ronald Reagan, who so lowered taxes on the rich that he allowed them to capture almost all the country’s increased wealth since the 1980s, depriving ordinary Americans of any real increase in the standard of living. Since our filthy rich quadrupled their wealth in recent decades but most of you don’t have 4 times as much money in the bank as you used to, you are competing less and less well with the rich for access to and influence with your elected representatives.
This year a man worth $9 billion died and passed it on to his children without paying any estate tax at all, thanks to the Republican Party. This situation is creating a permanent aristocracy of the sort that in the eighteenth century ruled the 13 colonies in the East and the northern territories of the Spanish Empire in the West, all of which now have congealed into the United States. One of the points of the American Revolution from the point of view of Thomas Jefferson was to make the country safe for middling, yeoman farmers and to prevent the distant colonial aristocracy from taxing us without representation.
Our new business aristocracy, whether Big Oil or Big Banking, taxes us indirectly by legislative capture, by arranging for bought-and-paid-for politicians to subsidize their industries with public tax monies. There is nothing wrong with being wealthy, and often the wealthy have made key contributions to society. But let us face it. Business classes are interested in short-term profit and seldom think in terms of long-term cost-benefit for society. Having a dynamic business class in a society can be a plus if its focus on short-term gain for the company can be offset by other powerful forces in society– labor unions, NGOs, intellectuals and others. But when the business classes get so they own nearly half the privately held wealth, they can overwhelm everyone else and take society in self-destructive directions– as happened with the Iraq War, the economic collapse in September of 2008 and with the oil rig collapse in April 2010.
And that is not your fault.
Now, part of what the pundits are saying when they say the Gulf oil gusher is your fault is that you like to drive your car inexpensively to work, and so you are part of a consumer market that motivates BP to drill. But it is grossly unfair to blame you, the worker, for the difficulty of getting to work by much more efficient rail or for allegedly rejecting electric vehicles powered by .e.g. wind farms.
The US government gives and has for decades given massive hidden subsidies to the petroleum industry that make gasoline seem far less expensive than than it is, and auto, cement and oil corporations successfully lobbied for taxpayer subsidies for highway systems rather than for rail and public transport.
You did not ask them to do that.
‘Oil companies receive special deductions lowering their effective tax rate to about 11 percent, compared to 18 percent for non-oil industries. This has cost an estimated $200 billion since 1968 and, with soaring industry profits in recent years, is growing at an ever-increasing rate. ‘
The cost of licenses for offshore drilling have been mysteriously slashed by the Department of the Interior, a way of transferring your money to the oil companies and of actually promoting offshore drilling, with all its potential to harm you environmentally and economically. Do you remember lobbying the Mines and Minerals Service for that one?
Even the wars you are paying for in the Perso-Arabian Gulf and in Central Asia, as well as the aid given Israel and Egypt, amounting altogether to over $100 billion a year, must be seen as a subsidy to big oil.
And then, the cost of water, soil and air pollution is not figured into the price of a gallon of gasoline. It is charged to the taxpayer in various ways. And, global warming is also not figured into the cost of gasoline.
In fact, the various deep subsidies that you are involuntarily giving Big Oil are being used in part to buy a propaganda campaign to convince you that climate change has been exaggerated and is nothing to worry about. Ironic, ain’t it?
But that is not your fault, either.
People keep saying that wind power is ‘just about’ competitive with oil and gas. But in fact if the true cost of oil and gas were properly calculated, and all the hidden subsidies were removed, wind would be revealed to be much cheaper than these other power sources are. Even solar might make a good showing in that case. (Don’t bother complaining to me about the limits of wind turbines and solar cells; they have those limits because not enough research and development money has been thrown at them by the government and by government-engineered incentives to private business. A reader complained that the investment had not worked with regard to fusion but that is silly. Wind and solar are proven but infant technologies and Germany has already shown that government support makes a big difference here.)
The subsidies for petroleum are unlikely to be lifted. This outcome is not because you will lobby congress and the senate to keep supporting big oil with your tax dollars. It is because of legislative capture. Too many elected representatives secretly run on the Big Oil Party ticket. (And no, it is not true that President Obama is more guilty of that than were his opponents).
It would help if the US Supreme Court did not recognize corporations as persons and did not confuse political campaign money with free speech, and if it would allow Germany’s practice of making campaign ads free. Then our elected representatives would not have to spend all their time raising money for television commercials from corporations in return for legislative quid pro quos. But the Court is appointed by the politicians who are victims of legislative capture, and it therefore represents the interests of Big Business.
I don’t know how to turn this thing around. I don’t know how to get free campaign commercials, or less money in politics, or stop legislative capture or halt the enthronement of the New American Business Aristocracy, with its all too frequent focus on short-term profit over long-term public welfare. I don’t know how to stop offshore drilling or wean us all off petroleum-fueled automobiles (I know that such a weaning would in any case take decades–but we haven’t even begun). Me, I ride my bike into work 9 months of the year.
I do know that many congressional Democrats see the current tragedy as a once-in-a-century opportunity to reformulate energy policy away from petroleum, and that they will need an outpouring of public support and of public donations to pull that off.
If you don’t support them in this push to begin getting away from hydrocarbons, then whatever follows– will be your fault.