Bad Business

Aug. 10, 2010
If Anything like BP's Oil Spill or the Financial Crisis Had Happened on a Smaller Scale and In a Smaller Community, the Cops Would Have Been Called, and the Perps Would Have Been Horsewhipped and Thrown in Jail
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

I don't often say this, but just stop reading this column right now. Flip back to Béla Lipták's "Ask the Experts" column on how BP might as well have planned to destroy much of the Gulf of Mexico. Go ahead. I and those who already read it will wait right here for you. Back yet? Good.

Now, I've always enjoyed reading about or gathering a big plate of specifics that help illuminate a difficult or even tragic situation. Of course, I didn't usually do much more than print the names of dozens of drunk drivers, the very few husbands who were actually charged with beating up their wives and some garden-variety fraud, Ponzi and pyramid scams. You remember. "Give me $1,000 and then get 10 friends to invest." Don't forget, because it comes back every 10 to 20 years, just like Three-Card Monty. (No relation, I swear.)

Anyway, when I get done reading, viewing or sometimes editing a story about some breathtakingly bad behavior, I'm also left with the why behind the why. I know crooks want to get rich and don't think they'll get caught, but what made them that way? What kind of upbringing and experience leads some people to cheat fellow citizens out of their savings, knowingly make others unsafe at work, start unnecessary wars or devastate environments that many depend on for their livelihoods and every generation should be able to enjoy?

Most investigative journalists stop at turning the light on, mainly because they feel like they've done the heavy lifting of digging out and revealing malfeasance. And many believe public outcry and the government will prevent former tragedies from happening again.

Sadly, both people and governments tend to forget and/or get co-opted amazingly quickly. For example, I recall names like Goldman & Sachs, Lehman, Madoff, Enron, Tyco, Milken, Boesky, Lincoln Savings & Loan and Resolution Trust Corp. Ring any bells? With a trail of financial fraud like that, it's even more astounding that our most recent financial crisis was allowed to happen. It makes connecting the dots from Exxon Valdez to BP in the Gulf look positively hazy.

I think this fog and the shadows in which epic fraud and negligence happen are made worse because of distance, size and diluted laws. Oil platforms and Wall Street are usually far away from the jurisdictions where they do the most damage. First, if anything like BP's oil spill or the financial crisis had happened on a smaller scale and in a smaller community, the cops would have been called instantly, and the perps would have been horsewhipped and thrown in jail. Second, the sheer size and scope of events like the BP explosion and spill and the Wall Street meltdown are hard for people to understand and hard for law-enforcement to investigate and prosecute. Third, the laws that apply to really big corporate crimes have been diluted—no doubt intentionally—to the point that they can't be enforced fast or forcefully enough to be effective. I've always agreed that capital punishment can't prevent emotional crimes like murder, but it could sure as heck deter planned crimes like financial fraud and unsafe industrial practices.

Unfortunately, none of the oversight needed to solve these problems will happen without a lot more routine community involvement. How can this be done? Well, as Mr. Lipták often reminds us, process control and automation engineers and their skills and logic can be useful in other areas such as these. We must give up our own insularity to get our less-aware neighbors to reduce their insularity too, so we don't vote idiots into power. Instead of protesting taxes, show up at municipal board meetings and get officials to shop smarter. Demand that your prosecutors and police pursue criminals aggressively. Don't buy products from companies stupid enough to have leaders stupid enough to have staff stupid enough to ruin our community, deny our families healthcare, steal our savings and ruin our environment.