The political class and all of its groupies in the punditry industry just can’t stand it. They cannot abide a major disaster of the nature of the Gulf oil well blowout that doesn’t have a political solution. This frustration is manifest in every media update on the well and every White House press briefing–the 21st century expectation of government, particularly one in the hands of the “chosen one”, is that it should “take charge”, be more “hands on”, demonstrate that it is in control, that it “cares”, that it is enraged, etc. etc. etc. Finally, at long last there is the reality expressed by Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen: “The government doesn’t have everything we need to solve this problem”. Thanks for the belated understatement, Admiral. He could have and should have added, “and it is not the role of government to assume the on-board technical or management expertise to solve such a problem”, that the solution is far beyond the core competencies of government at any level.
David Brooks has recently suggested that the systems that run our world are based on technologies that are so complex that no one person can or should be expected to understand them or the risk they present, let alone government bureaucrats. There may be some truth to that as we continually are reminded in crises such as the mortgage finance meltdown of the past couple of years. But these risk assessment failures are compounded by the hubris of government intervention and its very often disastrous unintended consequences. In fact, no evaluation of the role of government in this particular event will be complete without considering the consequences, intended and unintended, of the misguided environmental and energy policies that have placed energy abundant areas in Alaska, the western U. S., and shallow offshore areas off limits for oil and gas production. These policies have pushed the companies into deeper, more expensive, much more complex, and higher risk environments, and should be reconsidered in light of the recent disaster.
Over recent history, we have created the unfortunate environment in which no elected official is willing to admit or level with the American people as to the competency limits of government. And, in fact, in many corners of the left wing of the political class there is the incredible belief that government should have the on-board capability to directly solve such problems and be prepared to deal with disasters such as once-in-a-lifetime oil well blowouts. Is there a role for government here? Sure there is: assurances to the public that government is monitoring progress, making its public facilities available to the private sector effort, and helping to explain the difficult complexities involved are all parts of that role. No doubt that there was significant human error on the part of British Petroleum here and there will be ample time to assess the damage and the accountability. But self-serving statements of blame such as “we’re keeping a boot on the neck of BP”, criticizing the previous administration for “gutting regulations and putting insiders in charge”, and, above all ridiculous moves, launching a criminal investigation against the very people who are in the midst of the ongoing efforts to shut down the well flow have made this administration’s response to this disaster a complete disaster in itself. There won’t be a political solution here, but there will no doubt be huge political fallout.