Saturday, May 22, 2010

Obama vs. Carville vs. BP vs. Me.

I saw this on the Huffington Post this morning, and since I generally find James Carville about as pleasant as an ingrown hair, I wanted to offer a few comments on some of his comments about President Obama.

Carville, a Louisiana political commentator who was an advisor to the Clinton presidency, has blasted the president for a “lackadaisical and na├»ve” approach to the Deepwater Horizon disaster that killed eleven men, has shut down one of the nation’s largest fisheries, and threatens to ruin the ecology of the Gulf of Mexico.

Whatever any of their other shortcomings may be, neither the President nor the federal government should be held responsible for what has happened to date, because up to this point (and probably continuing for the near future) the federal government has not been in charge of the situation-- BP has, because BP created the mess in the first place.

The federal government became involved for two reasons. First, certain federal agencies, such as the Coast Guard, have jurisdiction over environmental disasters that occur in the waters of the United States. This, I should point out, in no way excuses Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen for his practice of simply parroting whatever BP says. The second reason is that the sheer scale of the disaster has made it into a problem for the entire region.

Fox News and other right-wing news outlets have given a great deal of attention to the concept of the Deepwater Horizon being “Obama’s Katrina,” a reference to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina which devastated the Gulf coast, rendered the city of New Orleans uninhabitable, and revealed the egregious and criminal incompetence of the Bush administration in so plain a fashion that it probably cost the Republican party the 2006 midterm elections as well as the 2008 elections. “Heckuva job, Brownie.”

The essential difference between Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon disaster is, of course, that the oil spill is manmade. More to the point, it is the result of man’s—whether BP, Transocean, or Halliburton is moot—negligence and complacency. The particular “men” involved are the private sector, not the government. This isn’t Obama’s Katrina, this is the oil industry’s Katrina.

Over the past month, since the explosion and fire which sank the Deepwater Horizon occurred, BP has continuously downplayed and obfuscated details of the magnitude of the spill, such that the quantity of oil and gas released per day is now known to be an order of magnitude larger than BP’s initial estimates. There is no excuse for that—any engineer could calculate the daily volume of oil simply by looking at the size of the pipe and the rate the oil was exiting it, which is child’s play when you have a camera-equipped robot staring right at the blown-out well. BP didn’t release footage of their observations of the well until three weeks after the blowout and fire, but even so it was plain even from just what was visible on the water’ surface that BP’s estimates were bogus.

Investigations and whistle-blowing have also revealed that much of the drill rig’s safety equipment didn’t work, and that BP and its contractors skipped important tests that would likely have warned of the impending disaster. That may sound like Monday-morning quarterbacking, but there is a very good reason that safety equipment and well logging are standard practices in the oil drilling industry—they prevent disasters and save lives. Likewise, there is no excuse for BP not having proven contingency measures ready to go, so that they would not have to resort to trying one bit of oilpatch jargon (“junk shot,” “top kill,” etc) after another, only to watch them fail because the water is too deep or the blowout too intense. Even relatively simple things required by BP’s permit, like as-built blueprints or having barges laden with spill booms and crews trained to lay them properly, turned out to be deficient or missing entirely.

The federal government’s error, as evidence has shown, lay in taking BP at its word, trusting the oil company to do (and to be able to do) what it said it would do. BP signed the lease for the oilfield, took out the permit, claimed it could drill safely, said it had contingency plans if anything were to go wrong, and assumed the responsibility for handling leaks or spills. Bear in mind, however, that BP arguably has the worst safety record of any major petroleum company in the United States—in just the last five years, it has had several major spills, one refinery explosion in 2005, and another refinery shut down out of safety and pollution concerns. Exxon was responsible for the Prince William Sound disaster, it is true, but at least Exxon learned from the experience and, for whatever its other faults, now at least walks the walk on safety and emergency preparedness issues.

It is not now, and has never been, the role of the federal government to hover over every well, refinery, pipeline, or filling station, or to immediately jump on every oil spill. The federal government is not a first-responder service. The government’s job is to set a standard of care (in the form of statute and regulations) that is intended to keep manmade disasters to a minimum, and the private sector is supposed to obey the regulations. Regulations are not in force only when the MMS or EPA inspector is onboard the rig—they are in force all the time, and drillers must obey them all the time. Blaming the government for BP’s failures and negligence is akin to the man who built a house badly, only to have it fall down, blaming the building inspector for not forcing him to build a better house.

None of this bears directly on the President—he is, after all, the President, and not a BP engineer or an EPA spill-response coordinator. While the spill has turned into a major regional disaster, the cleanup mechanisms are several dozen pay grades below the Oval Office. If Carville wants to vent his spleen at anyone, I would suggest BP, the Minerals Management Service, the Bush Administration (who authorized the drilling), or perhaps the Coast Guard. He should remember, however, that the sins of these various government agencies consist in that they trusted BP too much, and that the ultimate fault therefore devolves on BP.

BP doubtless has its own motivations here—to restore the immense damage to its reputation, which has turned the company into a pop culture laughingstock, and to save money by stopping the release in the most expeditious way possible. Some of these motivations are, at best, tangential to the desires of the government and the public, who want the spill cleaned up, the environment restored, and the fishermen and others whose livelihoods have been disrupted to be compensated. BP, meanwhile, wrote a blank check to its Gulf-area franchises and subsidiaries to deluge the media with advertising, ostensibly on behalf of gulf states’ tourism boards, advertising open beaches and fresh seafood.

It’s the very old story. Greg Palast recently summed it up thusly:

Americans want government off our backs ... that is, until a folding crib crushes the skull of our baby, Toyota accelerators speed us to our death, banks blow our savings on gambling sprees and crude oil smothers the Mississippi. Then, suddenly, it's, "Where was hell was the government? Why didn't the government do something to stop it?”

In short, the federal government has to take over because the private sector failed…….. again. That should be quite clear by now, at least to anyone short of Rush Limbaugh or Rand Paul—the former has alleged that environmentalists blew the oil rig up, and the latter has, in a spate of fundamentalist libertarianism, called Obama’s supposedly harsh approach to BP’s actions “un-American” for assaulting a corporation that plays a big part in the American economy.

In one sense I agree with Rand Paul’s extreme syndicalist outlook—certainly not one unreimbursed cent of public money should be spent on cleaning up a spill caused by a private sector operation which was engaged in exploiting for profit resources owned by the public.

I wonder…. If you give people enough rope, they can proverbially hang themselves with it. Does the same apply to giving BP enough boom?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Iron Man II

I saw Iron Man 2 this past weekend.

I must admit that I used to be much more nervous about seeing movies made out of comic books. Batman—and by which I mean the ORIGINAL Batman, with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson—was for many years the only decent example to come to mind. The latter few Batman movies, prior to the Christian Bale reboot, were just plain awful. The one-dimensional Eric Bana “Hulk” movie was one prolonged special effects fight scene orgy. Ghost Rider is best described in scatological terms. The two embarrassingly bad Fantastic Four movies had comic book fans and baby boomers furious at the pillaging of their childhood out for blood. The saccharine and trite Spider Man movies will not age well.

Iron Man is a little different. For one thing, even though he’s dying, Tony Stark comes across as anything but a sympathetic character. If anything, he’s the biggest asshole you’ve seen on the screen in a long time. Robert Downey Jr. has Tony Stark down pat—a hyperactive genius playboy with more tics and obsessions than he has substance abuse problems. The result is somewhere between Howard Hughes and Tom Swift. The movie version plays up Stark’s thinly-veiled contempt for most other human beings, while condensing his rather tiresome alcoholism problems into one scene at a birthday party. If you ever want to see Robert Downey Jr. mugging as a boorish drunk while wearing battle armor—this is the movie for you. Downey’s so good at playing a hyperactive, drunken asshole that I’m starting to wonder if he wasn’t typecast for the role.

Downey’s performance is, unfortunately not matched by all of the rest of the cast. Scarlett Johansson is irritatingly blank and robotic as an undercover intelligence operative, who very predictably massacres a platoon of hulking security guards in one of those precisely-choreographed bits of martial arts hyperbole of which Hollywood is so fond. Mickey Rourke hams it up, grunting and smirking as a metal-toothed and tattooed Russian expatriate with a vendetta against Stark and his family, and has maybe three coherent lines in the whole movie. Gary Shandling plays an oleaginous senator, a role for which he is uniquely suited. Samuel L. Jackson, recovering from his nadir in the Star Wars prequels, does a magnificently abrasive job of bringing Nick Fury to life. Sam Rockwell plays Justin Hammer, traditionally a malevolent also-ran to Stark, as almost a sort of comic relief. This is the part of the movie with which I had the most trouble. Even aside from the comic books’ depiction of Hammer as a sort of satanic Lee Iacocca, an eminence grise of the military-industrial complex, Rockwell’s Hammer is too young, pompously inept (the weapons he sells never work, in a gag that runs through the whole film), and stuffed with Wall Street buzzwords, malapropisms, and lame jokes to take seriously. This isn’t a nemesis, it’s a character from The Office.

The choice of villains may seem rather strange, particularly to those who know the comic books. For a character whose nature revolves entirely around technology, Iron Man has a remarkably diverse enemies list, running the gamut from industrial espionage through Cold War opposite numbers like the Soviet Crimson Dynamo to an ancient Chinese wizard. In this case, Rourke plays Ivan Vanko, a pastiche of Backlash and the Crimson Dynamo. Backlash generally floats in the lower regions of Stark’s enemies list, somewhere in the region of Count Nefaria, the Beetle, and Stilt-Man. Most of these guys date from Iron Man’s early days--by the time Stark had upgraded his armor to the point where he could give the Hulk a thumping or go toe-to-toe with an alien warlord, an organized crime enforcer with an electrically-charged whip hardly seemed a challenge.

Iron Man is and has always been an odd sort of hero— more than most, he has to change to keep up with the times. If anything, the problem for the Iron Man mystique over the last twenty years has been keeping far enough ahead of the Silicon Valley and Seattle avalanche to maintain the cutting-edge reputation. Tony Stark wouldn’t be caught dead running last year’s Linux (though, if so, why does the man who can build an armored suit that can fly across continents drive an Audi?)

The movie hits on a number of themes that not only resonate with the current state of the world, but which ran through most of Iron Man’s comic book life as well: the interdependence of humanity and technology in shaping the world; government paranoia, as equally present in the War on Terror years as it was in the Cold War; the unhealthily cozy relationship between the military-industrial complex and the federal government, the world of big business, and the moral tension between making money, and what the money comes from—in Stark’s case, he inherited a chunk of the military-industrial complex. It also deals, in one way or another, with many of the themes more particular to Stark himself—Stark is usually dying of one thing or another, he is a poor businessman who has gone bankrupt or faced hostile takeovers many times, and his inventions are constantly pilfered, copied, and pirated—in short, the “Demon in a Bottle” “Circuits Maximus,” and “Armor Wars” storylines from the comic.

The two Iron Man movies have also done an excellent job of planting Iron Man firmly in the here-and-now, which is a welcome challenge for a character created when solid-state electronics were mostly well in the future (yes kiddies, in 1963 Iron Man’s super-gimmicks were electromagnets and transistors). The movie itself is studded with modern pop culture references, from a cameo by Jack White to a Shepard Fairey painting of Iron Man. If this updating of the character means cleaning out the Augean stables filled to bursting with the leavings of almost fifty years’ of Marvel Comics, that may be a very good thing. It’s much like the recent Star Trek movie—if you bow and scrape to every precedent in a canon, eventually you so hem things in that Kirk has no room to be Kirk, or Stark has no more room to be Stark.

That aspect of storytelling hasn’t changed much since the Roman poet Horace published his Ars Poetica circa 18 BC. He advised:

Either follow tradition, or invent consistently.

If you happen to portray Achilles, honoured,

Pen him as energetic, irascible, ruthless,

Fierce, above the law, never downing weapons.

Make Medea wild, untameable, Ino tearful,

Ixion treacherous, Io wandering, Orestes sad.

If you’re staging something untried, and dare

To attempt fresh characters, keep them as first

Introduced, from start to end self-consistent.

What matters are not details so much as the essential nature of the character himself. Stark is a jerk and a genius. Superman is the ultimate boy scout. Batman is the brooding misanthrope. If you change that, you wind up with someone who isn’t Batman.

In the end…

…… there is an easter egg, about which I will not speak, save to say that it gave me a bad case of Kirby Dots.