The Short-Term Fix or the Long-Term Solution

I feel a bit late to the party writing about the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.  Had I chosen to focus on this subject a few days ago, I might have been inclined to draft a personal narrative about the summers I spent on Alabama’s Gulf Coast as a boy and young teenager.  My post would have certainly have been in good company; it heartens me to recognize just how many people have an emotional and personal connection to the region.  I myself didn’t realize how much the warm salt water and white sand meant to me until I began to contemplate what both might look like covered in oil.  It is very unfortunate that tragedies like these have to happen before we ever seriously consider the long term consequences.  Off-shore drilling was, until very recently, touted as some kind of snake-oil panacea or fix-all curative.  One hopes that we now understand the complexities and potentially catastrophic drawbacks in tapping the reserves present in our coastline.  

The entire situation reminds me of a passage in Robert Penn Warren’s classic novel, All the King’s Men.  Jack Burden is the book’s narrator and trusted aide to Louisiana politician Willie Stark.

Jack Burden remembers the years during which Willie Stark rose to power. While Willie was Mason County Treasurer, he became embroiled in a controversy over the building contract for the new school. The head of the city council awarded the contract to the business partner of one of his relatives, no doubt receiving a healthy kickback for doing so. The political machine attempted to run this contract over Willie, but Willie insisted that the contract be awarded to the lowest bidder. The local big-shots responded by spreading the story that the lowest bidder would import black labor to construct the building, and, Mason County being redneck country, the people sided against Willie, who was trounced in the next election. Jack Burden covered all this in the Chronicle,  which sided with Willie.

After he was beaten out of office, Willie worked on his father’s farm, hit the law books at night, and eventually passed the state bar exam. He set up his own law practice. Then one day during a fire drill at the new school, a fire escape collapsed due to faulty construction and three students died. At the funeral, one of the bereaved fathers stood by Willie and cried aloud that he had been punished for voting against an honest man. After that, Willie was a local hero.

Over time, I’m sure the particulars of this tragedy will become known, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a story similar to the above is at least partially responsible.  

In defense of our President and his supposedly slow response to the crisis, one passage in this story particular jumped out at me.

“There is no good answer to this,” one senior administration official said. “There is no readily apparent solution besides one that could take three months. … If it doesn’t show the impotence of the government, it shows the limits of the government.”

We are dealing with a situation that has no clear precedent.  It does, however, strike me as supremely ironic that an oil platform built and maintained by a company that has taken in record profits in the past few years would would collapse and explode in such dramatic fashion.  Oil companies have seemingly been immune to this Great Recession, so I know they can’t possibly be hurting for money.  When we uncover why this happened, whenever that shall be, one hopes that lots of questions will be answered, not least of which is the likelihood of something like this happening again.  The greatest lesson of all might be that sensible strategies and safeguards must be in place henceforth.  The process of extraction should never produce significant threats, nor put anyone’s life in danger.

Some of these proposals may be a bit more expensive in the short term, though, it must be noted, they will eventually pay for themselves in time.  Tragedies always expose our reluctance to delay gratification and opt for the long-term solution rather than the instant, short-term fix.  Hurricane Katrina revealed that the levies around New Orleans had been weakening for years but that the money had never been allocated to shore them up adequately.  The fatal Metro crash here in Washington, DC, that occurred last June revealed, in part, the financial and technological limitations of a public transportation system where crucial components of said system did not function properly with one another.  The earthquake in Haiti revealed how centuries of abject poverty and government dysfunction shortchanged an entire nation.  When another coal mine collapses, we see what happens when private companies put workers in dangerous situations out of an unwillingness to invest in proper safety protocols.  To use an analogy often deployed in terms of legislation, in all these examples, many were quite content to kick the can down the road.                  

I am of the opinion that not all deficits are bad.  Indeed, if there were a way to borrow the money or take out the needed loans to ensure that the trains always ran on time, so to speak, I would support it.  That which we do not address now, or address only with a glancing blow, will end us costing us just as much, if not more, in the end.  Whether that cost comes in financial expenditure or in ordinary human lives, I have no way of knowing, but I think it’s better to brave the sticker shock up front than to let guilt or shame guide us in directions where compassion and intellect could have led us much earlier.  I am no different than the rest of you.  As I mentioned above, it is only when destructive consequences are lain before me that I ever take into account how much routine beauty speaks to my core–to the very fiber of my being.  

It is unfortunate that we must be presented with the emotionally wrenching before we recognize that our lives are completely interdependent with one another.  For example, the Gulf Coast’s tourism industry thrives or dies on those who visit.  The fishing, shrimping, and oyster harvesting industry also rely heavily on those from other parts of the country and the world who spend time there.  The health of the sea life, animals, plants, and other organisms is essential to those who make their living, whether directly or indirectly, off of the ocean and the beach.  Yet again, our separation from each other is deceptive and we are again mistaken in believing otherwise.  We may see ourselves as supremely self-reliant, but the instant a crisis hits, we reach for our friends and our loved ones for support.  This is a normal response, but if only we took the time more frequently to recognize that we do not live in isolation from others, even in good times.  If we did so, we might not be so guarded with our hearts, nor as reluctant to edify the systems that each of us depend on heavily—day in and day out.      


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