May 29, 2010

Who is to Blame? Making Sense of The Gulf Oil Disaster

After the American Century

I gave an interview to the New Orleans Times Picayune a few days ago. The reporter was rightly interested in the American tendency to believe that all problems have technological solutions. If oil drilling technology created an underground gusher of oil, surely some other technology ought to be able to stop it. And if the solution was not found quickly, then it must be someone's fault. Lately the media has been debating whether it is the President's fault.
Karl Rove - surely the least trustworthy man in American politics - has made the argument that the oil leak is "Obama's Katrina" -  one of the most idiotic arguments ever. But logic has never been the strong point in American politics, and perhaps not in the education of journalists either. So let us do a comparison of Katrina and the oil leak, and see how well they compare.

Katrina was a hurricane, and the last time I checked that makes it a natural phenomena, of the sort known often to hit Louisiana. The federal government had spent years making plans and building defenses to protect New Orleans against a category 4 or 5 hurricane. However, the Bush Administration cut back funds to improve the levees around New Orleans, and George W. Bush specifically appointed a political hack as chief administrator to deal with such crises. The entire world knew that Hurricane Katrina was headed for the Louisiana coast, and the failure of the local, state, and federal authorities were many, both before and during the disaster. People died because of their incompetence, not least in the evacuation of the city.

A deep-water oil drilling disaster is a man-made phenomena. Moreover, no one saw it coming on a radar screen for days beforehand, as was the case with Hurricane Katrina. The explosion, fire, and oil leak resulted from the failure of a new kind of oil drilling, and unlike a hurricane, the specific accident was not foreseeable days in advance. The permit to do this kind of drilling came from the Bush-Cheney government, and it is worth noting that both Bush and Cheney worked as executives in the oil industry before coming to Washington. 

In contrast to a hurricane which is beyond human control, oil drilling is a human activity, in this case run by British Petroleum or BP. They were responsible for building the platform, and drilling from a point that was about one mile down in the ocean. BP was present at the site before, during and after the accident and "leak", so one might think that BP and more generally the oil industry, is to blame. People died because of BP's incompetence, but no one died because of anything Obama has done in this matter. 

Moreover, the oil industry gave the federal government assurances that deep water oil wells would be safe. Perhaps they lied, perhaps they are just incompetent, but one thing is certain: the oil industry was a whole was not ready to deal with the disaster. They failed to make contingency plans. They failed, in effect, to construct the protections, the levees if you will, that were needed. The oil industry was not prepared to defend the shoreline or the fishing industry against a massive oil spill. The oil industry decided, as it usually does, to put profits first.

And speaking of profits, BP had a profit of more than $4 billion in the fourth quarter of 2009, and it made even more in the first quarter of 2010, a rather tidy $6.1. That is more than $10 billion in the last six months. Why is BP making so much money? The price of crude oil has almost doubled in the last year, but the cost of extraction has actually gone down slightly, (see CBS news). BP, which is not even the largest or most profitably oil company, could have afforded to make contingency plans. Exxon made a profit of $45 billion in 2008 and continues to rack up big profits. If such companies cared about more than the bottom line they would have jointly funded a permanent task force  that is always ready to deal with oil leaks and spills. The oil industry could have been prepared. Instead, they just kept drilling and hoped to pass on the bill, and the responsibility, to someone else.

Yet even had they prepared, and this was my point when speaking with the Times Picayune, Americans tend to think that there is a technological fix. Not all problems can be quickly solved, and not all powerful natural phenomena can be stopped. Human beings might be able to provoke a volcanic eruption, but we cannot stop one.  BP opened a hole that let the oil escape into the Gulf of Mexico. Plugging that hole is harder than drilling it in the first place. Tampering with powerful natural forces can get us in over our heads, and Americans need to understand that  smart technology may not always be immediately available to get them out of trouble.

So, blame the oil companies for not being prepared, for not investing very much of their enormous profits in accident prevention or oil leak protection. Blame the Bush-Cheney oil-friendly administration for allowing this kind of drilling in the first place, and for not assuring that the safeguards were adequate. But do not imagine that just because human beings can create a problem, we can always create a solution. As our technologies grow more powerful, the responsibility to use them carefully increases exponentially.

If you want to read more along these lines, most libraries have a copy of my Technology Matters (MIT Press, 2006).

After I wrote this blog, BP admitted that it did not have adequate technical know-how to deal with the problem they had created.

May 18, 2010

The Handy War Handbook

After the American Century

There was a strange moment on the Danish national news yesterday. A journalist was interviewing someone about Danish troops fighting in Afghanistan, and the question under discussion was serious: when was it permitted to kill enermy soldiers and when not. I am not going to address this question here, because I want to focus on the journalist's excitement when hearing that there was a handbook spelling out the rules of slaughter. Immediately the issue became whether these solders were carrying the rules around with them or not. It was quite evident that the journalist believed it essential that these young men have that book at all times. 

Imagine. You are a soldier, in a firefight, a matter of life or death. Then, in the best Monty Python tradition, you realize that there is a question in your mind as to whether it is OK to heave a grenade into yonder ditch. Perhaps one should go look in there first? Could be a little dangerous. Wait, a happy thought. I can consult my trusty handbook, which weighs only a kilo or so. It is a pleasure to haul it around  to consult in just these situations. So, put down the rifle, open the backpack, get out the handbook, consult the index, and find the proper instructions. Meanwhile,  the enemy, including anyone in that ditch, will respectfully maintain a ceasefire until there has been time to read the appropriate passages.

In that journalistic moment, the almost religious Danish belief in bureaucratic rules was blindingly, maddening manifest. For the discussion did turn to whether the soldiers were all issued such a handbook, whether they carried it with them at all times, as clearly they should, etc. etc.  Clearly the rulebook was the crucial point, the nub of the matter.

I am not presuming to judge what the Danish soldiers were doing or not doing. But wasn't the journalist at that moment an idiot?

May 13, 2010

Cameron and Obama

After the American Century

The first foreign leader to call David Cameron to congratulate him on becoming prime minister came not from inside the EU but from the White House. One often hears that the "special relationship" between Britain and the United States is not what it used to be, but I think this is mistaken. The reality has always been that these two nations are a bit like brothers. They may not always get along, but when a crisis comes, they almost always stand on the same side. When people say that the "specialness" is on the wane, they usually have a glorified idea of how close the connection was. But during World War II, the British public felt that the Americans were too slow to come to their aid, and once they did come by the million, they complained that the soldiers were "over sexed, over paid, and over here." At the same time, they fought and died together in North Africa, Italy, and France before the final push into Germany.

Looking further back into the nineteenth century, US/UK relations were a bit rockier, to say the least. But few people today remember these tensions, though most know that they fought a war from 1812-1815. Most Americans mistakenly think they won that war, and it is probably just as well not to explain that the US ally was Napoleon, who obviously lost.

At the moment, the US and the UK again need each other, for several reasons. They have to work together against the threat of terrorism, and they need to cooperate to keep their economies and currencies strong. Now that the Euro is becoming a bit uncertain and losing value, the dollar is getting stronger by comparison. No doubt Cameron hopes that American investors and bankers will continue to locate offices and factories in Britain.  And surely Obama wants to form a good relationship with the new leader of such an important ally, particularly with the war in Afghanistan and the withdrawal from Iraq and the situation in Pakistan all looking difficult, to put it mildly. Moreover, the British have better relations with Iran than the US, and Washington needs London to talk to Tehran.

In that election phone call, Obama invited Cameron to come to Washington. The two men are roughly the same age, and should have a  good chance of forging a personal relationship that builds trust between them.  These are not tranquil times, and these two leaders will need each other.

May 10, 2010

Duane Michals, photographer

After the American Century

I was pleased to make some opening remarks at a retrospective exhibition of Duane Michals' photographs in 2010.  His works are in the permanent collections of the great museums of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, Harvard and Princeton. He has been the subject of exhibits in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, and on and on, worldwide. This was the first exhibition of his work in Denmark for 16 years. My remarks follow.

Duane Michals was born in 1932 in McKeesport, a Pennsylvania steel town on the Monongahela River.  His father was a steel worker, and growing up just twelve miles away from Pittsburgh, he was in the midst of American heavy industry. I grew up myself less than 100 miles from there, and heard some of the same radio stations and likely the same commercials for Iron City beer – the sponsor for Pittsburgh Pirate baseball games.  This was a dynamic sometimes turbulent world of coal mining, foundries, unions, strikes, solidarity, and accidents. As Michals writes at the bottom of one of his images, as a child he thought all rivers were yellow and that the night sky ought to look orange. He first saw the black night sky in Indiana, when visiting relatives, and felt sorry for them.

It might seem that the logical, even the inevitable, choice for a photographer who grew up in such an environment, would be to become a realist photographer, and to work in the tradition of Lewis Hine, who made many images in the Pittsburgh area. Alternately, he might have been inspired by the later documentary tradition and the work of the great Depression Era photographers like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Russell Lee. But Duane Michals is not part of this tradition. He did not choose photography in order to use it as a mirror.

After high school, Michals attended the University of Denver, where he studied the arts. Denver in the 1950s was still something of a cow town, with enormous feedlots and slaughterhouses. And looming right behind the city are the Rocky Mountains. A few hours away were national parks and magnificent scenery.  This environment implied another possible photographic career. Michals might have become a landscape photographer in the tradition of Carleton Watkins and Ansell Adams. Indeed, Adams was one of the most successful photographers of that era. But Duane Michals is definitely not part of that tradition either.

Rather, while in Denver he was studying painting, not photography. He had not picked up a camera yet. His first jobs were in the commercial world of New York magazine publishing, where he worked as a designer for several different employers, including Time Magazine. He still had not become a photographer, but he had already trained his eye. He knew about framing, lighting, and contrast, and he had seen a good deal of fine art, not just in books but also in museums and galleries.

More important that this visual education, Duane Michals had developed a particular sensibility that would inform his photography. While still back in McKeesport, at age 17, he had run across the poetry of Walt Whitman. This he immediately saw, was not at all like the poetry assigned in high school. Whitman broke all the rules for classical poetry, and like Michals in photography, Whitman was self-taught as a writer. Whitman also had a strongly visual imagination, and many of his poems are almost like a series of snapshots – sometimes called catalogues – that juxtapose a series of strongly felt scenes.

Similarly, Michals became famous for creating photographic series, juxtaposing images. Sometimes they are a narrative sequence, other times the connections between the images are more philosophical.

However, I do not see these sequences as the most important connection between Whitman and Michals. Rather, it is thematic. Whitman is a transcendentalist poet, who was himself inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Whitman is a strongly affirmative poet, even when writing about death. He, like Michals, was not content with the surfaces, but pushed to understand people and their situations in full. Whitman was not the poetic equivalent of a documentary photographer or a landscape photographer. Whitman managed to combine a strong social interest in the world around him with an intense interest in dreams, in altered states of consciousness, and in mystical experiences.

Duane Michals has made many photographic tributes to Whitman, incorporating his very texts inside some of his images.  
Whitman is at once one of the most American and most universal of authors. As we open his exhibition here today in Denmark, surely we can say the same of Duane Michals. He is one of the most American and yet also one of the most universal photographers.  We are fortunate that he did not become a documentary photographer focused on the declining steel industry of Pittsburgh, that he did not choose to imitate the landscape photographers of the American West. Both are worthy traditions, but surely it was much better that he instead took inspiration from Whitman and became a major photographic innovator. 

Whitman once wrote of his poems

This is no book
Who touches this, touches a man.
(Is it night? Are you alone?)
It is I you hold, and who holds you.
I spring from the pages into your arms….

Duane Michals wrote something similar: “It is no accident that you are reading this. This moment has been waiting for you. I have been waiting for you.” On another occasion, he said, “When you look at my photographs you are looking into my mind.”   Go see the exhibition, and look into these photographs. To paraphrase Whitman, who sees them, sees a man.

The exhibition was at Odense's Photographic Museum (Brandts) until August 15, 2010.

May 04, 2010

An Efficient Phone Call? A Little Story for Our Times

After the American Century

The story I am about to tell is representative of a larger trend. Over and over, administrators proclaim that they are going to become "more efficient" and save money. Who can be against that? But in practice, becoming more efficient means just the opposite. 

Once upon a time, if I needed to make a conference call, I pushed one button on my phone, reached the operator, gave the numbers of the other parties, and then waited at most two minutes before our telephone meeting began. Clearly, my university found this terribly inefficient, I found out yesterday. I called the operator in the usual way and was told that now I am to arrange conference calls directly. To do so, I needed a set of instructions, which were emailed to me. After printing them out (3 pages) there were several points that were unclear. So I called the operator again for a discussion, focusing particularly on what my customer code number might be. That was something only the Department Secretary knew. Being hellbent on efficiency, I left my office immediately and found the Secretary, who was on the phone herself. After ten minutes I was back in the office with the code.

I was then ready to call the phone company. I listened to an automatic answering machine recite a list of options, managed to select the right one, and within another minute was talking with an operator in a faraway place who had never heard of my university. I gave him my name (would I spell that please?), my email, my department's name, the three phone numbers to be linked with, plus my phone number, plus the secret code number. The gentleman then promised to send me an email confirming the arrangement, with all the phone numbers listed so I could check them. Several minutes later the email came, with an attachment. I opened it, printed it out, and read it over. The numbers were correct. Time ellapsed: 45 minutes.  Time saved: minus 43 minutes (so far).

I still have not had that phone conference, which I ordered for later today. But I am proud of having mastered this new efficient system.

[I had imagined the call would be dialed automatically, but in fact an operator called me and then linked up to the others who were to take part in the meeting. All the preparation time was completely unnecessary.]

May 02, 2010

Greeks Undermine the Euro by Underpaying Their Taxes: $30 Billion Each Year

After the American Century

Since writing the previous posting about the Greek debt crisis, the New York Times has published an article about the widespread failure of wealthy Greeks to pay income tax. Estimates are that the Greek government has failed to collect $30 billion every year. In other words, there really should be no debt crisis, but there is a corruption crisis. 

How can the European governments be conned into bailing out a country that is systematically being ripped off by its own citizens? See the Times story here.

The idea that the Euro should drop in value because of corruption is Greece is absurd. The rest of Europe should punish Greece for bad faith and for harming the common interests of the rest of the EU member states.

And the bankers, who were willing to loan money to Greece, assuming that they could pressure the rest of the EU to secure the loans, should be more tightly regulated. The EU should put in its constitution that each nation is responsible for its own debts, and that no other nation has any responsibility to make them good. Rather, EU nations might turn to their federal government in times of natural catastrophe, invasion, or other calamities over which they had no control.

Why does all this matter? Because Greece is only the worst case. The EU has been too lax. It has allowed member nations to ignore fiscal responsibility. It has allowed bubble economies to grow in Spanish and Irish real estate. After the collapse of the Spanish bubble unemployment has risen to 20%. Entire housing estates in Ireland have been built without finding buyers, and thousands of houses stand empty there.

This is the first crisis of the Euro, and if it wants to be taken seriously as a world currency, the EU has to put a stop to fiscal irresponsibility. As it is, the EU members such as Sweden, Denmark, and Britain, that have not joined the common currency are likely to wait a good long time before they can muster a majority to take the plunge.