Monday, June 14, 2010

Wall Street Journal: Oil Spill Is a Failure of Government

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig was serviced partially by Halliburton, owned by Transocean, and leased by BP. But a columnist for The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) writes that the explosion on the Horizon and resulting oil spill are largely a failure of government.

WSJ's editorial page long has been known for its "curious" conservative take on world affairs. But the recent oil-spill column, by Dan Henninger, is over the top, even by WSJ standards. Consider this nugget from Henninger:

This may well be Obama's Katrina, but presidencies come and go. The more lasting lesson of the Gulf fiasco is to discover how belief in the omnipotence of government had risen to the level of mysticism for so many, and not just on the left. Some conservatives joined the do-something chorus to "stop" oil gushing with hellish force from deep inside the earth's core. (Set aside for now the interesting matter of just how vast the reserves of oil actually are down there.)

Let's try to interject a little reality into Henninger's fantasy island. First, we know that for some 30 years the American right has been trying to weaken the power of government to regulate business. That was a central tenet of the Reagan Revolution, and it has become embedded in our society--especially during the eight years of the George W. Bush administration.

We recently learned that in 2000, when Democrat Bill Clinton was president, the U.S. Minerals Management Service still was competent enough to have issued a report for Shell oil company outlining the potential for disaster from deepwater drilling. When Bush took office in January 2001, such warnings were ignored, and the administration pushed to speed up off-shore drilling. We are now dealing with the consequences.

Henninger's argument is like depriving a child of nutrients for years and then griping when he doesn't become a world-class athlete.

As conservatives are prone to do, Henninger overstates the alleged "omnipotence" of government. It's doubtful that even the most ardent liberal would believe that government can resolve any disaster, no matter how grave. I'm not aware of anyone who touts the government as some kind of regulatory Superman.

Some 50 years of history tell us, though, that reasonable regulation does have the power to prevent, or limit the effects from, the screwups that are a natural by-product of risk-driven capitalism.

Henninger, we suspect, doesn't see the irony in his own words. Consider this:

Coming as it did on the heels of various other government fiascoes and embarrassments—the subsidized-mortgage crisis, ethanol, California issuing IOUs, Bernie Madoff, ultra-deep public debt, infrastructure turning to dust everywhere—the Gulf mess is the moment for the American people to reconsider just what they think government can do, or should do.

Almost every example that Henninger cites is a product of weakened regulatory authority, emboldened and corrupted business practices--or both.

The problem, Mr. Henninger, is not government. It's a governing philosophy, one that Ronald Reagan and your colleagues at the WSJ editorial page have been touting for decades, that seeks to free corporations from regulatory oversight.

Henninger's column reads like something from a joke Web site, such as The Onion. But we can only assume that the WSJ crowd intends for it to be taken seriously.

Hopefully, the American public will be smart enough to see through such right-wing tripe. If they can, the Reagan Revolution will sink into oblivion--like the Deepwater Horizon. And our country will be better for it.

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