It's been a rough few weeks for BP CEO Tony Hayward. Watching the embattled executive weather several hours of angry cross-examination on Capitol Hill last week, one almost felt sorry for the man. After all, it's difficult to take an ethical lecture seriously when its coming from the nation's most scandal-ridden, least-trustworthy body of elected representatives. The few pity points Hayward may have gained from the televised thrashing, however, were quickly lost when the next day he announced that he was handing over day-to-day management of the crisis in the Gulf and returning to England, only to appear that weekend at an exclusive yachting event off the Isle of Wight. Tony Hayward's apparent tone deafness to the magnitude of the crisis in the Gulf, and the callousness of his public behavior in its aftermath, is an illustration of the moral and ethical pitfalls inherent in a globally-scaled economy that has come to value profits over people.
As many have pointed out, Tony Hayward's choice to weekend on his yacht hardly impacts the minute-by-minute effectiveness of ongoing cleanup efforts in the Gulf. But it does send a powerful message that he doesn't fully appreciate the reality of the situation – that he's unable to empathize with the suffering of those whose very livelihoods depend on the now oil-choked waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Similarly, President Obama has drawn significant criticism for continuing to golf, hike, and engage in other forms of presidential "leisure" in the days since the explosion and subsequent oil spill first erupted. When President George W. Bush announced that he'd given up golf as a sign of solidarity with the troops fighting overseas, the gesture was lambasted as shallow and ultimately meaningless. But the media seems to have realized, in hindsight, that such gestures, while they may seem shallow, are far from meaningless.
In a democratic system of government, the people elect their representatives largely in part because they believe that they are voting for someone who can relate to their perspective, needs, and priorities. This is why politicians go out of their way to portray themselves as down-to-earth, average citizens, even when they are far from either. Thus, in a crisis, the American people expect our political leaders to feel our pain, to put themselves down in the trenches with those suffering. What we don't expect is for them to retreat to the country club. This is why President Bush's decision to give up golf mattered, if only for its symbolic significance: He gave up a leisure activity he enjoyed as a signal of solidarity with the soldiers who had no free time for fun and games because they were putting their lives on the line every day in the deserts and cities of Afghanistan and Iraq.
It's important to remember, however, that titans of industry aren't democratically elected representatives, but shrewd businessmen that have ascended through the ranks of corporate influence for one reason: They are good at making money, and lots of it. Tony Hayward presides at the head of a multinational energy corporation. His job is not to know the minute goings-on of an individual rig; his job is to manage and delegate as needed to keep his company competitive and profitable. This dynamic illustrates the moral hazard inherent in these kinds of huge business endeavors, where there are so many layers of bureaucracy between the big boys at the top (focused solely on profits) and the actors on the ground (the ones doing the actual work) that it's difficult for the Tony Haywards of the world to maintain a sense of the human factors involved in their businesses. For conservatives, this should call into question the "goodness" of the kind of unadulterated capitalism in which humane considerations are often compromised as a result of profit-driven cost-benefit analyses.
In many ways then, the BP disaster represents the risks inherent in our modern, global economy. We, the consumers, demand bigger, better, faster, and cheaper... and the corporate giants that provide the amenities of everyday life in wealthy western nations are more than happy to give us what we want. Should we really be surprised, then, to discover that the men and women at the helm of these industrial behemoths aren't exactly the warm and fuzzy types – that they don't seem to really care when a major accident happens and people die and a whole coastal region is destroyed? Is it realistic to expect small-town business ethics from corporate bigwigs?
If BP was a locally-owned and operated small business and Tony Hayward was a resident of the Gulf Coast – if his parents had been born there and he'd been born there and his children had learned to swim in the surf off Grand Isle – you can be sure that he wouldn't be vacationing in the midst of a crisis caused by his company. He would be there, working and praying and struggling alongside his neighbors. There is a critical element lost when businesses and the people that run them aren't anchored to a discrete community, when their employees and their customers are little more than statistics or numbers on a revenue report. This same phenomenon was at work in the recent Wall Street meltdown and subsequent crises in the mortgage and banking industries. People lost sight of the people involved because they were preoccupied with maximizing profits at all costs.
There is an important distinction to be made between capitalism and a humane, community-based free market. Many in government have seized on the recent crises to suggest that the free market has failed. But the recklessness and greed on display on Wall Street and in corporate America is a distortion of the free market; it is a result of capitalism run amok – the relentless pursuit of profits with no regard for or connection to the real world.
BP will be forced to make monetary restitution for the damages their negligence caused; the American people can count on that. What we shouldn't count on is any expression of true remorse from the executives at the top.