Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Perverse Incentives of Modern Day Capitalism (first in a series)

BP has wasted so much time on efforts to save the oil and its investment in the well that it is just now getting around to attempting to seal the well. It's pretty simple. Fuck BP. Fucking blow it up. Fucking collapse the earth around it. And be fucking done with the spill and get to the clean up.
-The Rude Pundit
It has long been an intention of mine to produce a series of short think pieces on the perversion of incentives inherent in modern day capitalism--how the elevation of making a buck to the highest (some might say only) good creates not only negative objective outcomes, but actively devalues much that is good and beautiful and righteous and true in the world.

I'll give you an example from the wonderful world of booze, a world I am both professionally and personally conversant in, and that I think illustrates the sort of thing I'm getting at.

Take, for example, this glass of whiskey. For the purposes of this thought exercise, we'll say that it's glass of high-grade, small-batch bourbon from an established distillery with a tradition of excellence going back a couple of centuries. It doesn't really matter which one.

Now, let us ask ourselves, what is the point of this whiskey? What is its purpose and how can it be judged to have fulfilled that purpose?

As someone who appreciates the art of leisure and the finer things in life, the answer is simple, obvious, even self-apparent. This glass of whiskey is meant to be enjoyed, preferably in good company. Its purpose is to stimulate the taste buds of the person who consumes it, to be digested and the alcohol transferred to that person's bloodstream so as to loosen the strictures of everyday life and to facilitate relaxation and camaraderie among good people. Sure, it can be abused, which is a shame, but at the end of the day, a lot of time and effort has gone into making the sipping of this whiskey a pleasurable experience, both in itself and in its effects. There's history there, and tradition, family recipes that go back generations, people who not only derive a living from its manufacture, but also a sense of pride and of place, a feeling of participating in something worthwhile that began before they were born and will continue on after they have passed. And the production of leisure and enjoyment is something worthwhile.

Ask capitalism what the point of this whiskey is and its answer is telling. The purpose of this whiskey is to be sold, bought and paid for by someone, and the money transferred from the end user up a long line of middle-men to the distiller and, more importantly, his or her stockholders.

As far as capitalism is concerned, so long as the whiskey is paid for, there is no meaningful distinction between enjoying it with a little ice among good friends and lively conversation and pouring it down the drain, because as long as somebody paid for it and everybody up the chain got their cut then it has fulfilled its purpose and all is well.

Ask anyone who appreciates a good whiskey what they think of that and they'll tell you that it's a crying shame to waste good whiskey, and as far as I'm concerned they'd be right. But capitalism is blind to such distinctions, because living well and enjoying life are secondary at best in capitalism's universe of purpose and motivation.

Which brings us back to the inflammatory quote with which this post began. The perversion of incentives and motivations inherent in modern capitalism have become so embedded in our contemporary worldview that this is the first time I've seen it suggested that, hey, maybe what we ought to do with the ruptured well gushing hundreds of thousands of gallons a day of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for the last month is to blow it the fuck up and collapse the earth in around it, thus sealing off the rent and preventing said environmental catastrophe from getting worse than it already has. I mean, we're Americans. There is nobody, and I mean nobody, better than us at blowing shit up. It's kind of our thing.

But, to my knowledge, noone seems to have brought that up as a possibility until comparatively recently. Why? Well, because BP invested a lot of money in that well, and they really want to sell that oil, and because modern day capitalism is so embedded in our national consciousness, the worst environmental catastrophe in history was allowed to perpetuate so as to try and salvage BP's bottom line.

That's right. We probably could've plugged that shit up more or less right away. But we didn't, because then BP might've had a bad quarter (that they should by all rights be put on the hook for the entirety of the cost of cleanup and then lose their right to operate in the US or at all is too radical a notion to even mention in this consideration of the mainstream American universe of discourse, despite its relative obviousness to anyone whose motivations are more aligned with human and ecological well-being).

Here's a fun widget that'll give you some idea just how much oil has leaked and is leaking into the Gulf of Mexico to help BP preserve its bottom line:

Here's a video of the leak, with the siphon tube BP installed, which is supposedly sucking up somewhere around 20% of the oil gushing out of the sea floor:

There's a lot of things I think this catastrophe offers us the opportunity to reconsider. Offshore oil exploration and regulation of its infrastructure are pretty obvious examples. But I think we ought to take it a step further. Because we have elevated the making of money in this phase of human history to an almost obscene prominence, and while the negative outcomes associated with rampant, unfettered capitalism have long been a source of misery and inequality and even catastrophe, I for one think it's time to revisit not only our motivations but our goals, as a society and as a species. Defenders of capitalism unfettered will say that of all economic systems it provides the greatest good, the best outcomes. I would reply that the current unfolding catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico might make us want to reconsider. I'm not saying that capitalism needs to be done away with. But I think we ought to downgrade its status, from highest good to tool in the toolbox, and to reconsider where we want to go and how we want to get there.

But I've rambled on enough for one day, so I'll leave it at that for now.

1 comment:

Greg Bossert said...

Quote of the day:

BP had stuck by its first estimate that some 5,000 barrels, or 210,000 gallons, a day of oil was leaking from the well - despite claims from several experts the real figure was at least 10 times higher.

But BP spokesman Mark Proegler told news agency AFP on Thursday: "Now that we are collecting 5,000 barrels a day, it might be a little more than that."

It's this exact combination of blithe bald-face lying and bad math that makes capitalism so persistently successful. (And successful it inarguably is, perhaps because money is easier to count than happiness, and counting makes us feel safe, even if money is the perfect abstraction of the unhatched chicken....)

Ironically, I had a whiskey spill last night (well, whisky: it was single malt scotch). I felt awful: a good single malt is (as you point out) worth much more than it costs. Also, the first sip tasted great, but that's all I got. Also also, I spilled it into my keyboard.

And, when I first read the quote that started this post, I thought it was suggesting blowing up BP, rather than the well. Either works for me.