Monday, May 31, 2010

Careless people (Sunday Reflections for May 30, 2010)

People have used many words to describe their reaction to the unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Shock, dismay, anger, grief, despair, and outrage are typical examples. One word you don’t hear much, if at all, is surprise.

This past Thursday, Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman put his finger on this aspect of the Gulf oil disaster. It is yet one more massive screw-up, inflicting suffering on a massive scale, resulting from government and/or private institutions acting incompetently, recklessly, or criminally—if not all three.

This is not a new story but a recurring one. It describes the invasion of Iraq. It describes the failures that led to the destruction of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It describes the financial crisis that led to the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. It describes the explosion of the federal budget and the government debt in the last two years.

The aftermath of each event was chaos and pain, which seemed to surprise no one more than the architects of each failure. But the cost of their errors ended up being borne by those beneath them — soldiers in Iraq, homeowners in New Orleans, workers in companies far removed from Wall Street and taxpayers whose liabilities multiply like rabbits.

What adds to people’s disgust and cynicism is that so often the perpetrators of these fiascos are able to walk away. They may lose their jobs but usually their exile is to a life of luxury from fortunes and connections collected while planning and implementing these debacles.

Time and again, we are led into uncharted territory by leaders of one kind or another. We end up wandering in the wilderness while they proceed to the Promised Land. The culprits bring to mind the description of the Buchanans in The Great Gatsby: "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made."

Chapman goes on to repeat the now well-known survey reports finding public trust in institutions of all kinds is at an all-time low. One other statistic he cites also shows, however, that we shouldn’t assume such cynicism has always been the case. “In 1966, four out of five Americans trusted government to do the right thing all or most of the time. Today, four out of five do not.”

That high watermark of public trust was ended by two events in quick succession: the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. In both cases, political leaders went down paths of self-destruction reminiscent of the Hebrew prophets and Greek tragedies. Indeed, those ancient stories remind us that the propensity of leaders to act stupidly and selfishly is certainly nothing new. What is new, however, is that the power of modern leadership positions vastly compound their errors to wreak havoc beyond anything the ancients ever imagined.

The BP oil well blowout has made evident one serious problem. While the technology has continued to develop to now enable very deep drilling, the state of technology has hardly moved at all to prevent or control the accidents that inevitably occur. Something similar has occurred in the development of our modern society. The complexity of our public and private institutions has enabled the incredible standard of living we now enjoy. That complexity has also put great power in peoples’ hands which can and will be abused. We have not developed parallel institutions to check that abuse.

There has been much debate in recent years about the value of government regulation. Critics cite its inefficiency and tendency to add costly burdens to private industry. Yet recent events point to the need for more and better means of regulation and control. There needs to be a major attitude change about the necessity and role of watchdogs, examiners, testers and even the court system. Such people and their agencies need to be viewed as genuine public servants, guarding the public’s safety and welfare as much as anyone with a badge or a gun. This whole field needs to be seen as an honorable vocation, attracting people of the highest intellectual caliber and integrity.

People have not grown more evil, corrupt, or stupid. The mechanical and social tools at our disposal, however, have multiplied the ability of people to do great harm when their less noble sides take over. We must simply see it as a necessary part of advanced society that we devote significant talent and resources to knowledgably watch ourselves. Doing so both catches our unintended errors and makes us think twice about putting our hand in the cookie jar. The cost for this is more than balanced by the price we all pay when things go seriously wrong.

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