Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Managerial Expertise, Yes! Vision and Leadership, Not So Much

There were two key passages in President Obama's speech last night, I think; one came near the beginning, the other near the end. First:

You know, for generations, men and women who call this region home have made their living from the water. That living is now in jeopardy. I've talked to shrimpers and fishermen who don't know how they're going to support their families this year. I've seen empty docks and restaurants with fewer customers--even in areas where the beaches are not yet affected. I've talked to owners of shops and hotels who wonder when the tourists will start to come back. The sadness and anger they feel is not just about the money they've lost. It's about a wrenching anxiety that their way of life may be lost. I refuse to let that happen. Tomorrow, I will meet with the chairman of BP and inform him that he is to set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness.


For decades, we have known the days of cheap and easily accessible oil were numbered. For decades, we have talked and talked about the need to end America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels. And for decades, we have failed to act with the sense of urgency that this challenge requires....[T]oday, as we look to the Gulf, we see an entire way of life being threatened by a menacing cloud of black crude. We cannot consign our children to this future. The tragedy unfolding on our coast is the most painful and powerful reminder yet that the time to embrace a clean energy future is now. Now is the moment for this generation to embark on a national mission to unleash American innovation and seize control of our own destiny....Each of us has a part to play in a new future that will benefit all of us. As we recover from this recession, the transition to clean energy has the potential to grow our economy and create millions of good, middle-class jobs--but only if we accelerate that transition....

Now, there are costs associated with this transition. And some believe we can't afford those costs right now. I say we can't afford not to change how we produce and use energy--because the long-term costs to our economy, our national security, and our environment are far greater. So I am happy to look at other ideas and approaches from either party--as long they seriously tackle our addiction to fossil fuels....But the one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is too big and too difficult to meet. You see, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II. The same thing was said about our ability to harness the science and technology to land a man safely on the surface of the moon. And yet, time and again, we have refused to settle for the paltry limits of conventional wisdom. Instead, what has defined us as a nation since our founding is our capacity to shape our destiny--our determination to fight for the America we want for our children. Even if we're unsure exactly what that looks like. Even if we don't yet know precisely how to get there. We know we'll get there.

What do I get out of these two passages? From the first, I get compassion, but a fairly narrow compassion, one that elicits a sense of determination more managerial than moral. What is at stake in the Gulf Coast right now, thanks to the unprecedented environmental catastrophe caused by the oil spill? An entire "way of life may be lost." How to conceptualize an enormity like that, address it, and respond to it? Obama chooses to do what, frankly, is the obvious thing to do in our complex, late capitalist world: issue checks. British Petroleum will be required to "set aside whatever resources are required to compensate the workers and business owners who have been harmed as a result of his company's recklessness." That some of the harm felt in the wake of this catastrophe may not be able to be strictly accounted for in terms of declining revenues and property values, that it may have at least as much to do with health and stability and beauty and history...well, unfortunately, BP and the government can't do anything about that. Which means, really, that neither agency can really get a handle on what it means to speak of a "way of life" at all. Ways of life are developed, one must suppose, by ordinary people over the ordinary course of time, something that has to happen completely separate from (though in the midst of) the foremost imperatives of our present economic and legal regimes: totaling up costs, assessing fines, and mailing out the compensation bonuses.

I'm not arguing that such an approach is wrong. On the contrary, while I recognize that the principle of damages and compensations, torts and liabilities can be abused, I'm more or less completely in favor of such, and will remain so as long as we live in the midst of economic and legal regimes which treat the natural environments within which people live and ways of life develop as property that corporations can buy, sell, develop, and abuse, within minimal democratic accountability to the communities their decisions affect. So yes, make BP pay! But at the same time, such an approach is profoundly limited. As my friend Nate Oman points out (though he comes at this from a very different direction than I), relying upon complaints and judgments fails to provide even the stability which private insurance supposedly can, and creates a "feast or famine" mentality which has problems all its own. Most importantly (and here I disagree with Nate's argument), talk compensation for corporate recklessness is, at best, a limited and secondary way to establish norms for civil discourse--by which I mean, the ability of people to talk to one another, learn from and lean upon one another, to take responsibility for and make authoritative decisions regarding the communities and environments (both civil and natural) within which they live. BP still has the power; they still have the deep-water wells; they're still the corporation (or one of them, anyway) which provides the jobs and the infrastructure and the wealth around which so much of life (again, both natural and civil) in the Gulf Coast has developed, and become dependent upon. All you're really doing is forcing the local boss (or bully, or big-time operator; take your pick) to shell out some extra change, to help you, the ones whose way of life was affected, to pick up the pieces (perhaps by picking up and moving on). Consider David Kurtz's thoughts:

The Gulf is not a pristine environment. If your only exposure to the Gulf has been on the beaches of Florida, you might convince yourself that the Gulf is a deep blue aquatic wilderness. But as you travel west, the beaches give way to the marshes of the Mississippi delta, which are crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines, manmade canals, and flood control levees. Further west, in Texas, the beaches reemerge, but shipping canals, giant refineries, and petrochemical factories persist. Over the horizon, in the Gulf itself, thousands of oil and gas wells pump night and day....

The Deepwater Horizon disaster is as organic a product of human processes in the Gulf as Hurricane Katrina was a product of natural processes. Shipping, flood control, and natural resource extraction have taken a nearly century-long toll on the coast. The Gulf has been abused, exploited, fouled and taken for granted for so long and with such consistency that the shock and horror over this one incident becomes in its own way a salve for our consciences....The spill the ruination an alcoholic leaves in his wake. You can clean up the mess, try to prevent it from happening again, and hope for the best. But as long as he's still drinking, disaster looms.

What would I have liked to hear from the president? Not necessarily more "anger"; anger is a limited rhetorical tool, and besides Obama clearly doesn't do it well. But, for better or worse, leadership in democratic politics (especially in mass polities like our own), is in part theatrical; it involves expressing themes and harnessing attention, so as to build passion and cultivate awareness, to enable citizens and voters to see themselves in an interconnected and responsible light. Moral breadth was called for. But in invoking the "way of life" of the Gulf Coast, and then making it, ultimately, about financial costs which must be paid, Obama made himself more narrowly into a smart, committed insurance actuary, rather than a leader trying to transform the debate.

Which is especially unfortunate, considering that the primary focus of the second (or actually third; talking about the mechanics of the clean-up came first) portion of this speech was exactly the aforementioned ruination which our society's oil addiction wrecks upon our lives. In that portion, he truly needed to holistically express the deeply entwined forces , expectations, worries and consequences which this disaster lays bear, not just for the Gulf Coast, but for the whole nation. But what I got from the second passage isn't much of this; what I got was mostly, again, technical determination and ambition, rather than a broad (encompassing both regrets and hopes) moral concern for what it really means to make wealthy, complicated, post-industrial society like our own capable of re-orienting its energy uses in profound ways. True, the president did talk about the "tragedy" in the Gulf of Mexico, and he did talk about the "costs" of transition. But mostly he was a booster, a calm and serious salesman of possibilities. Green communities, clean-energy jobs, American ingenuity, shaping our own destiny: all the usual highlights of America's famed self-confidence were there, expertly expressed. Ezra Klein and Bradford Plumer are far more conventional liberals than I, and even both of them listened to the president and heard mostly just the classic technical and managerial promises of pragmatic liberal governance: working hand-in-hand with business to make "clean energy profitable"; trusting that, with the right kind of public-private partnerships, "technology can come along and save us". Perhaps that's an unfair reading of Klein and Plumer, not to mention Obama. But the fact remains that, despite his very nice concluding words about the prayers being voiced for shrimping fleets throughout the Gulf region, Obama never demonstrated a conviction that his plans for an oil-spill free and less oil-addicted future might involve chastened rethinking, rather than just ambitious new thoughts.

I'm probably a broken record on this point, but at least I'm not alone. President Jimmy Carter, thirty-one years ago, took the high road, connecting the nation's at-that-time devastating energy crisis--a crisis which was generating profound despair and distrust about the fundamentals of the America's consumer economy, as well as opening a window to real rethinking of those fundamentals--to the need to struggle against a presumption of powerlessness, a presumption that the United States can't really govern itself, because the problems it faced were too complex and its people too selfish. It was a harsh speech, one that has been poorly (and unfairly) treated by history, one that had as it's most crucial element a degree of humility: specifically, a willingness to allow that America was doing some things wrong, and that resolving the crisis would have to involve change, not just going more or the same things in a more closely regulated, better funded, more determined way. If President Obama truly wants to change the debate, to introduce and reframe the many problems which this catastrophe as unveiled for the public at large, than he needed, I think, to show not just a mastery of all the ways in which people of good will and good ideas can come together to make business as usual a safer, fairer, better compensated and more trustworthy endeavor, as valuable as those things assuredly are. He needed to show, also, a recognition that "end[ing] America's century-long addiction to fossil fuels" really might involve altering, even repenting of, the way of life which sustains that addiction. But again, unfortunately, when Obama spoke last night of ways of life, he showed real compassion and devotion to repairing all the different compartments of it...but little vision of how it all comes together, and how the bad is dragged in along with the good. I wasn't looking for him to renounce or complain (Carter didn't either, at least not in his speech itself; I won't pretend to defend how he managed his affairs subsequently); I was hoping that he'd show some leadership in pointing out corrections which must be made, and not just repairs.

1 comment:

N. Oman said...

RAF: I actually agree with you about the limits of compensation and civil liability as a means of promoting civil discourse. I do think, however, that a proper functioning system of civil liability may well go much farther than you are willing to credit toward creating the conditions under which more humane forms of economic organization spontaneously emerge.

I think that one of the ways in which we fundamentally disagree with one another is over the limits of intentional human planning. This means that I am less likely than you are to see commercial behavior as resulting from a managerial culture in which executives do things to people. Rather, I tend to see commercial activity as a vast institutional mechanism for trial and error where -- if things are functioning well -- we get positive feedback for socially desireable results and negative feedback for socially undesiderable results.

Ironically, I think that your thinking about commerce is very similar to your thinking about politics, which you see as at least potentially a kind of benign deliberation about intentionally created communities. Here again, I think that I am more inclined to see democracy as -- like the market -- a vast institutional mechanism of trial and error with feedback mechanisms that function with better or worse results. Indeed, it is because I see democracy primarily as a feedback mechanism rather than as a form of deliberation that I am relatively more enthusiastic about markets vis-a-vis democracy than you are. I think that even the best functioning political system will provide slow and crude feedback compared to the best functioning market.

This means that I see real limits to intentional communal redefinition and redemption. I don't deny the importance and value of civic discourse and deliberation, but I see it as more limited and probably more hemeneutic rather than deliberative. I do think, however, that there is a sense in which our sensibilities may converge. I see my outlook as being humble and modest, one that is willing to acknowledge limits on our capacity to understand, plan, and control. I also see it as taking seriously the concept of "a way of life" seriously, as ways of life are always emergent rather than planned orders. Furthermore, they are always in the process of emergence and change. While I am sympathetic to trying to preserve them from the effects of violent change, I do not think that stasis should be an implicit ideal, as I think that much of preservationist thinking sub silentio assumes.

This means that in the end, I am fine with a politics that doesn't call for radical, intentional remaking of society in the hopes of redemption. Indeed, such a politics frightens me. Rather, I am interested in a politics that aims at local ameliorations and the creation of institutions that allow for the creation and evolution of healthy, unplanned, organic social ordering. Hence, while I have my complaints with Obama, his failure to be more Carter-esque is not among them.