Sometimes a health policy blogger decides to blog about something other than health policy. Today is one of those days. I’ve been hearing so much of the political back-and-forth over the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that I finally decided to weigh in. At issue, as I see it, is the proper role of government in responding to the disaster.
Of course, we have to back up to Hurricane Katrina and the way in which the Bush administration mishandled the federal response to that disaster. With perhaps the exception of the 30% who consistently approved of Bush’s presidency, most would agree that this was a screw up primarily because the response was delayed by several days and even then seemed somewhat inadequate. At the time, of course, the largest outcry came from liberals. After all, when the other team’s batting, you definitely want to highlight every time they strike out.
Fast forward to today, and many on the right are similarly accusing the Obama administration of dropping the ball with the BP oil spill in the gulf. In fact, some are getting really political about it, claiming that either it was an inside job (similar to the conspiracy theorists that think Bush plotted 9/11) or–a bit less extreme–that Obama wants the situation to get pretty bad (check) to support his position against expanding offshore drilling. I can sort of believe in the latter.
But, as I already said, the real question is what the role of government should be (or have been) in both cases. On the one hand, there will be those who think that the government should never be involved–but I think there numbers are few. Then, conversely, there will be those who think that government should always be involved whenever a large catastrophe threatens the nation. I think that there are probably a lot more of those folks. Then there are people who just play politics. When the federal government failed to respond to Katrina in time, it was the people’s fault for not evacuating–never mind that they lacked the means to do so in most cases. Now that someone from the other party is in charge, though, it’s okay to blame government. It almost makes me wonder, if McCain had won the election, if the response would have been–well, those people chose to live down there, so they should move or learn to deal with it. I hope not, but you never know.
After much thought, here’s the distinction I see. Katrina was a natural disaster. Since it’s not really feasible for us to hold Mother Nature accountable for her actions, we have to respond somehow. Who takes the lead in that case? Some would say government, some a coalition of private non-profits. What we saw was a lot of both, and I think that’s appropriate. I do think that government should have stepped in earlier. The oil spill is the result of an accident, but it falls squarely under the authority of BP. In this case, I don’t necessarily think that it is the government’s responsibility to fix the problem. Sure, if BP asks for federal assistance, they should step in, but otherwise, I think this is BP’s mess. They shouldn’t be insulated from the risks of their enterprise. Long story short, I firmly believe that the oil spill and Hurricane Katrina are like apples and oranges. BP should be taking the lead (as they largely are) in containing and cleaning the spill with the assistance of the Coast Guard and other branches of the federal government. Attacks on the administration for failing to do a job that a private corporation should be doing is, however, nothing more than petty political pandering.