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Downing

The true blame for the Gulf Coast mess lies not with BP, but with our government

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The horror off the Gulf Coast has unfolded in real time, week after dread-filled week, poison flowing out of the earth and into the seas, unstoppable, like subconscious dreck in a terrible dream. Watching helplessly, trying to avoid the images of dying birds and animals—and soon, perhaps, fishermen—the only relief is finding someone to blame.

Go ahead, blame BP. But you'll be missing the real target.

Of course BP and its coevals did unlimited bad and stupid things yet to be fully disclosed. But blaming them is like getting mad at a shark for eating fish. BP exists to do exactly what it did: Take unacceptable chances in the pursuit of oil and profit, which in the oil-company ecosystem is the same thing. The profit motive, to capitalist enterprises, is what hunger and sex are to animals—a pure and irresistible drive.

BP and its partners must, naturally, be made to pay until they go belly-up, preferably in a pool of toxic hydrocarbons. And they will. Politicians can sweep a lot under the rug, but a live video feed of gushing oil and a couple hundred million grieving voters are too hard to finesse. (The time to start shorting the company's stock was about three weeks ago. BP has roughly the same life expectancy as Louisiana's marshes.)

But the posturing that's coming from Congress—the hearings, the speeches, the outrage—makes me want to shoot myself. BP and its partners are just what they appear to be: rapacious global corporations. Blame them if you will, but the entity that finally must answer for the oil spill, the place where your rage and mine should be focused, is not on the companies involved in the patently insane enterprise of drilling for oil a mile under the surface of the ocean—but on the government, yours and mine, that allowed them to do it.

People who care about the environment have been consistently, unshakably, vociferously against offshore drilling from the get go: The nature and magnitude of the risk were never obscure, never hard to understand. The bottom of the ocean is a more alien place to work than the surface of the moon. So why would you allow people to punch holes in the planet's crust to release pressurized toxic liquids down there? So my neighbors can keep filling up their Ram pickups and their dune buggies and their Suburbans with the "Drill, Baby, Drill" stickers (I am not making this up) at a price they like? Not a good enough reason.

Ask yourself: What is a democratically elected government for? It's to build roads, negotiate treaties and equip armies, yes, but it's also to regulate things. It's to impose sense and order—the rule of law—on a world of disparate, conflicting interests. Among other things, elected governments exist to make and enforce rules that keep the strong and the smart and the rich from taking everything away from the weak and the poor and the dumb, including their health, their clean air and water, and their shrimp fisheries. Because that is what the powerful do if nobody stops them.

Another critical role of any decent government is to objectively assess risk and find ways to limit it. This is necessary, because so often, these little masters of the universe start thinking they're actual gods. They win and win until they think they can't lose. They start buying politicians and corrupting officials, and then very bad things begin to happen. (Savings-and-loan scandal ring any bells? Enron?)

I keep making the same argument about the financial crisis: If you blame AIG and Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs, you're missing the point. Blame the Congress that deregulated the system, and let the bankers do what they were born to do: Act out wild greedhead fantasies with other people's money. Duh.

Listen: There are things we simply don't allow, because the worst-case scenario is so unthinkably bad. We don't let pilots drink before they fly. We don't let children carry weapons. We don't stockpile nuclear weapons in cities. Why? Because the risks are too great. Offshore drilling is like that. One thing goes wrong, and you've got what we've got now—catastrophe.

So we all woke up one morning and learned that drilling for oil at the bottom of the sea is a bad idea. It now seems so obvious.

The truth is that it was obvious all along.

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