Sunday, June 13, 2010

Cheap shit means dead pigs

People like cheap shit, no matter what the cost.
-- Megan Burns, in a Facebook discussion of the BP oil spill

I thought that was quite a nice, punchy, insightful phrase, and it applies elsewhere. We like cheap fast food no matter what the cost is to our health, in cruelty to animals in factory farms, to the environment, to our sense of taste. We like cheap manufactured goods from China, no matter what the cost is to the economic health of our own country. We like cheap credit so we create a fantasy world of trillions of dollars of basically shit loans, and rely on the government to clean up the mess. Here in California, we like to keep things cheap so much that we've let what used to be some of the best schools and infrastructure in the country decay to the point of danger.

And we like the cheap oil that underlies it all, no matter what the cost to the environment, no matter the cost of the military machine required to secure access to foreign sources, and no matter the cost of fucking over the environment to the point of utter catastrophe. It appears that cheaping out on safety and backups seems to have been a major factor in the BP oil spill:
In March 2006, BP was responsible for an Alaska pipeline rupture that spilled more than 250,000 gallons of crude into Prudhoe Bay – at the time, a spill second in size only to the Valdez disaster. Investigators found that BP had repeatedly ignored internal warnings about corrosion brought about by "draconian" cost cutting. ...

BP has also cut corners at the expense of its own workers. In 2005, 15 workers were killed and 170 injured after a tower filled with gasoline exploded at a BP refinery in Texas. Investigators found that the company had flouted its own safety procedures and illegally shut off a warning system before the blast. An internal cost-benefit analysis conducted by BP – explicitly based on the children's tale The Three Little Pigs – revealed that the oil giant had considered making buildings at the refinery blast-resistant to protect its workers (the pigs) from an explosion (the wolf). BP knew lives were on the line: "If the wolf blows down the house, the piggy is gobbled." But the company determined it would be cheaper to simply pay off the families of dead pigs. (Original report here...truly amazing even to one as jaded as myself)

The company applied the same deadly cost-cutting mentality to its oil rig in the Gulf... BP shaved $500,000 off its overhead by deploying a blowout preventer without a remote-control trigger – a fail-safe measure required in many countries but not mandated by MMS, thanks to intense industry lobbying. It opted to use cheap, single-walled piping for the well, and installed only six of the 21 cement spacers recommended by its contractor, Halliburton – decisions that significantly increased the risk of a severe explosion. It also skimped on critical testing that could have shown whether explosive gas was getting into the system as it was being cemented, and began removing mud that protected the well before it was sealed with cement plugs.
Economic downturns only exacerbate the pressure to keep things cheap, of course. And nothing is more annoying than some urban elitist lecturing the Wal-Mart set about how they shouldn't be buying all this crap and instead furnish their house in hand-woven Tibetan wall hangings or something. (James Kunstler seems to have made a career out of doing this). Few of us who aren't independently wealthy can resist the allure of the cheap. It's tempting to put all the blame on BP, but BP was only able to cheap out because cheap-minded voters elected politicians who promised to keep their taxes cheap and keep the prices at the gas pump cheap.

Cheapness is pervasive in the system of the world and can't be eliminated by clapping BP executives in irons, tempting though that prospect is. Capitalism seems to have become a finely-tuned machine for churning out cheap crap while deferring or externalizing the costs. But bills come due some time. You might be able to keep an economic juggling act going forever, but the real world can't be fooled. Ask a dead pig or dead pelican.


hoyhoy said...

I go back-and-forth on the we're-all-to-blame meme and the evil corporatocracy using Edward Bernays-style public relations to neurolinguistically program the proletariat into behaving like consumptotrons meme.

Our evolved monkey-like acquisitiveness is most definitely being amplified by all the advertising, corporate propaganda and living in an era of sustained surplus. However, I'm not sure to what degree this is the case.

Have you seen the Adam Curtis documentary "Century of the Self" ( Curtis makes a pretty good case for the effectiveness of public relations on the behavior of the masses.

mtraven said...

The concept of "blame" is probably the wrong one for this situation. It implies that the system is just dandy, except for a few miscreants, and when we punish or correct or eliminate them things will be fine. I don't believe that. Capitalism grinds on, if you decapitate BP of its upper echelons there will be plenty of new eager suits to replace them. And consumers aren't cheap because they are greedy or stupid, for the most part, it's because they are economically stressed. It's a broken system and it isn't worth trying to blame particular components.

I guess I should say that capitalism, despite its tendency to burn the world if there's a short term profit to be made, is also remarkably creative and adaptive. If there was some way to make prices reflect real costs including what are now externalities, it would probably build us a paradise. But without that, it dumps the costs into the environment and will ultimately bring hell-on-earth, especially if you believe the worst case global warming scenarios.

Have not seen the documentary you mention; will check it out.

jlredford said...

I blame the commies - if they had just held out, there would still be something people could point to to keep the corpocrats in line. Shape up, or it's up against the wall. But since they imploded twenty years ago, the oligarchs have hardly been able to contain their glee. They've run absolutely wild, stealing the election in 2000, openly buying politicians, and smashing every regulation they could. There used to be some checks on them, but not any more

TGGP said...

Californians don't have a general opposition to spending money on public services. They just have very different priorities than, say, lower-tax Texas.

Buying from China does not harm our economy, it helps it. Our economy would not be helped if we had to dig with spoons instead of shovels either.

Redford, you're deluded. When the commies were around it just meant an excuse to buddy with Franco, Pinochet, Chiang, Rhee, Deng, Papdopolous, Mobutu etc. At least they aren't commies (though Mao, Savimbi, Pol Pot and some of the Contras were)! Of course you provide no evidence for your paean to the bad old days, not that I'm surprised. Let's look at a classic case of tough shit for the working man: mining deaths. It seems like the same process of decline occurred before and after communism. Score another point for MacCaulay & the Whig historians. Why don't you shuffle off to some place where your hallowed revolution carried out its righteous violence without eating its own children.

David Xavier said...

Well I wont bother listing the "great" environmental successes of communism or socialsim...which managed to 'burn' the earth without the profit. (Ok , China is making a profit, now that its fascist.) Yes Capitalism has it faults and is the worst possible system ..until you consider the alternatives...yes its a bit like Democracy. Generally Capitalism forces the most efficient use of materials and labour..ah yes ,that profit motive at work.

The BP disaster was due to regulatory failure. I notice Obama is trying to bury BP to prove his lefty 'street cred'and focus the blame some what. And as the share price tumbles , so do the pensions that its dividends support. Obama as statesman or commander in Chief is missing in action - as always.

not even the scientists are serious
about the worst case global warming scenarios.

Though you can imagine the brave new world possible , with people like Obama and doom-mongering scientists at the helm with unfetted power. I would imagine it would be a case of rejecting Capitalism as inherently evil in favour of a great human cull...

mtraven said...

Xavier: of course the only two possible ways to order human society are as an environmentally rapacious capitalism or an equally environmentally rapacious communism.

If you are going to recite incoherent Republican talking points maybe you should separate out the contradictory ones a little bit. You are complaining about Obama both taking action and not taking action in the same paragraph.

Let's take the one small sentence of your comment that makes sense: The BP disaster was due to regulatory failure. The precise phrase is "regulatory capture", meaning that the government's ability and/or desire to serve as a check on the naturally unlimited self-seeking greed of corporations has been badly compromised. If you want to treat coporations as children and the government as a negligent parent that lets them run wild, well, OK.

jredford: I think the problem is capture by the government by pseudo-libertarian ideologues
starting with Reagan (so somewhat before the fall of communism). As you said, that fall removed one of the legitimizing props of the state and let the libertards run wild. I am starting to miss Nixon, who (aside from the sociopath thing) signed the EPA and a number of other important enviornmental laws into effect.

TGGP: it's really dumb to think that there can be no downside to our outsourcing of manufacturing to China. Just because individual short-term transactions may be appear to be optimizing is no guarantee of global long-term optimizing. Just ask a meth addict.

Anonymous said...

It is not cheap oil that induces a company like BP to engage in deep-water offshore drilling. It's expensive oil.

The quickest way to shut down high-cost extraction of oil, which deep-water wells are, would be for the price of oil to fall. No one would bother with them then. In the '90s, when OPEC was selling oil at prices below $10/bbl, many American producers shut down their wells because they could not pay their costs of operation at that price. Those wells were on dry land. Oil wouldn't need to fall nearly as low as it did in the '90s before deep-water wells became uneconomical.

It is not 'regulatory capture,' but rather wrong-headed regulation, that's to blame. It has removed millions of acres of land in the western U.S. from exploration and exploitation of oil resources that might much more cheaply and safely have been extracted. It has also prevented safer shallow-water offshore drilling. These regulatory actions have reduced the available supply of oil, and have accordingly helped to drive up oil prices to a level where risky and expensive deep-water wells appear to be economically viable. That's the real background of the gulf disaster.