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. ...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.
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.
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.