Wednesday, June 9, 2010

A breathtaking image in today's WSJ

Was startled by the photo that appeared on the front page of today's WSJ. It seems strangely plopped into the general news of the day: showdown on fund taxes; incumbents in danger of losing; poor South Africans protest against government neglect.

And in the middle of the page, a striking photograph of two men in a moment of intimacy. Click on that link and you'll see the image of one soldier comforting a seriously wounded comrade.

This is a picture of man at his most vulnerable. A soldier wounded in Afghanistan. A man far from home. Surrounded by enemies in a foreign land. Sent there to protect his country.

A friend holds a Bible and offers a cigarette to comfort the wounded man. He is reading the wounded soldier's favorite Psalm, Psalm 91. It appears as if someone else not in the picture is holding the wounded man's hand.

In a moment of horror, a wounded soldier finds solace from God and men.

This picture haunts me. It reminds me that in our time of need, we reach out to others - and they reach out to help us. And it reminds me that at this very moment, soldiers are risking their lives to protect our rights as Americans.

Amidst the news of the terrible black plume poisoning the ocean, the struggle to inject a sense of duty, honor and an emotion other than greed into the financial sector, the ridiculous spectacle that is the Blago trial, it is essential to remember that men and women are dying to protect America. We cannot forget this. Our soldiers are protecting our right to be American. We must honor them with our actions.

The Psalm the soldier wanted to hear:

Psalm 91
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust." For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day; nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.

A thousand my fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand; but it will not come near you. You will look only with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked.

Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your habitation; no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.

For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The songbird sings a horribly discordant note...

Peggy Noonan wrote a terrible column in last weekend's Wall Street Journal. "He was supposed to be competent" is the headline, and it's about how Obama's incompetence is the reason the Gulf Coast is soaked in oil right now.

Come again?

Peggy Noonan was Reagan's songbird. Her speechwriting for the man who named a revolution was elegant, eloquent and inspirational.

Does she forget that her boss considered government the problem? That businesses were dying under the yoke of regulation? That for America to succeed, a bloodless revolution needed to take place that severed the government from the responsibility of regulating much of American business?

Because untethered, according to the Reagan Revolution, businesses could fly high and soar. And their profits would trickle down into the pockets of all of us on Main Street. Which would have been great, since salaries have remained stagnant since Reagan was in office. That trickle down money could have meant something. Maybe it would have given us all enough pin money to have averted the consumption crisis we're facing today...

Oh we still had regulatory agencies after Reagan, but they were starved of funds and talent. Or the talent they had in house ended up spending their days watching porn. Or they grew frustrated after seeing Dick Cheney develop energy policy with the help of the companies they were supposed to regulate....

And what have we seen since the Reagan Revolution changed our perception of the government's role in regulating businesses? Banks gone wild, acting like college girls on spring break, pushing boundaries because they knew daddy would pick up the tab. Auto companies existing thanks only to the largess of the federal government. Oilmen pointing fingers at everyone else when catastrophe occurs.

Here's how Noonan characterizes the situation in the Gulf:

"And now the past almost 40 days of dodging and dithering in the face of an environmental calamity. I don't see how you politically survive this.

"An environmental calamity," she calls it. And it is.

But this is no natural disaster. This is not Katrina. Obama has not lingered on vacation while his fellow Americans in the Superdome ran out of food and water.

This is a man-made disaster of the worst kind. According to Noonan, key to Obama's incompetence is that "he wanted people to associate the disaster with BP and not him." She continues:

"His philosophy is that it is appropriate for the federal government to occupy a more burly, significant and powerful place in America—confronting its problems of need, injustice, inequality. But in a way, and inevitably, this is always boiled down to a promise: 'Trust us here in Washington, we will prove worthy of your trust.' Then the oil spill came and government could not do the job, could not meet the need, in fact seemed faraway and incapable: 'We pay so much for the government and it can't cap an undersea oil well!'"

What Noonan fails to understand is that this is BP's disaster. They owned the rig. They made the plans. They cut expenses. Rushed the process. Employed people whose decisions resulted in catastrophe.

BP is the 4th largest company in the world. Their revenues increased 25% from 2007 to 2009. That's the time when many of the citizens of the globe saw their net worth disappear like puffs of smoke in the great crash of 2008.

In their 2009 annual report, BP talked about what a great year they had:

"2009 was an outstanding year. Reported production grew by 4% and unit production costs were down by 12%."

You can have that kind of year when you do things on the cheap. Here's what the WSJ uncovered in their investigation of the spill:

"BP made choices over the course of the project that rendered this well more vulnerable to the blowout, which unleashed a spew of crude oil that engineers are struggling to stanch.

BP, for instance, cut short a procedure involving drilling fluid that is designed to detect gas in the well and remove it before it becomes a problem, according to documents belonging to BP and to the drilling rig's owner and operator, Transocean Ltd.

BP also skipped a quality test of the cement around the pipe—another buffer against gas—despite what BP now says were signs of problems with the cement job and despite a warning from cement contractor Halliburton Co.

Once gas was rising, the design and procedures BP had chosen for the well likely gave this perilous gas an easier path up and out, say well-control experts. There was little keeping the gas from rushing up to the surface after workers, pushing to finish the job, removed a critical safeguard, the heavy drilling fluid known as "mud." BP has admitted a possible "fundamental mistake" in concluding that it was safe to proceed with mud removal, according to a memo from two Congressmen released Tuesday night."

No wonder production costs were down significantly in 2009. But the cost of saving money has been astronomically expensive. We will be dealing with the repercussions of this gusher for years to come. And people are wondering - BP earned so much money in recent years and yet they cannot cap the well. That's their job - drilling wells. They assumed the risk of drilling in deep water. And, if you believe their 2009 annual report, they fully understood the risks they were taking.

"Risk remains a key issue for every business, but at BP it is fundamental to what we do. We operate at the frontiers of the energy industry, in an environment where attitude to risk is key. The countries we work in, the technical and physical challenges we take on and the investment we make - these all demand a sharp focus on how we manage risk. We must never shrink from taking on difficult challenges, but the board will strive to set high expectations of how risk is managed and remain vigilant on oversight."

The risk was not managed. Nor was there a plan in place for what to do in case of catastrophe. That's an oversight that has left the world with a terrible "environmental calamity," as Noonan calls it.

Now in the minds of people like Peggy Noonan, the fault lies not in the corporation, who has profited mightily in recent years, but in the president, who can't put a cap on the gusher. The president needs to fix it or he is a failure. BP - not accountable.

That's a terrible political philosophy - that government is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess left by large, profitable global companies. That businesses are no longer responsible for their actions. That to "fix it" requires socialization of loss, while the privatization of profit continues. It's not what Reagan wanted. At least I don't think that's what he wanted. One never knows with politicians.

What we have learned in the years since Reagan, as the bankers informed Congress in 2009, self-regulation doesn't work. That's something Obama needs to address. That's his job. And yes, there were likely failures in that area. But let's be clear: BP is as responsible for the explosion on the rig as they are responsible for the profit they've made in recent years. And they need to be held accountable for the mess they've made.

No matter what the songbird says.