July 4, 2010

Of Pot Roast and Petroleum

Originally posted June 2, 2010

After toiling in the trenches of the restaurant business for about 20 years, my friend Bill finally got his big break: He was hired as a manager of a Carrows restaurant. His resume was impressive; he had served as a busboy, dishwasher, waiter, host, cashier, even a wine steward, and he had stellar references. However, his record betrayed one notable weakness that could have been a dealbreaker – he didn’t know how to cook. So he spent his first two months in the kitchen, learning how to cook the entire menu. For as his superiors were quick to point out:

If you don’t know how to do something, you’re not fit to supervise those who do.

In any line of business, if an employee calls in sick, someone has to fill in; often, it’s the manager. When you hire new workers, someone has to train them. And how can you possibly evaluate their performance, if you don’t know what a good performance looks like? A Harvard MBA is good, but it doesn’t always prepare you for the real world of dealing with people and problems.

The Deepwater Horizon well has now been spewing oil into the ocean for over a month and a half. Who’s to blame? Depending on who you ask, it’s either Transocean (because they owned the rig) or BP (because they operated it) or Halliburton (because they consulted on the project). Or perhaps it’s nothing more than a freak accident that no one could have anticipated or prevented.

The federal government’s response (though it got off to a slow start) has been fierce. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar vowed to “keep our boot on their (BP’s) neck until the job gets done.” President Obama declared “the buck stops with me” to plug the leak. And now Attorney General Eric Holder has hinted that he might soon bring criminal charges.

A notable (and laudable) exception to this pattern, however, is Admiral Thad Allen, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard. In a recent interview with CNN’s Candy Crowley, Allen refused to take the bait to demonize BP. Rather than to solicit his opinions (as reporters are supposed to do), Crowley attempted to put words in his mouth again and again. Don’t you hate them? Shouldn’t they be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law? They’ve been lying to us all along about the size of the leak, right? But Allen was all about the facts, and the plan: Let’s just fix this thing.

Bravo, Admiral.

Indeed, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men have been pulled together to fix this thing. They do a pretty good job of looking busy. They smile for the cameras on the evening news and on the Sunday talk shows, assuring the world that they’re on the case. But have you noticed what’s missing from their sermons?

A strategy to, in the words of our president, “plug the damn hole.”

In a bold move to signal his impatience, Salazar threatened to “push them (BP) out of the way” and bring in government workers to do just that: plug the hole.

“But wait,” cautioned Admiral Allen, “we don’t know how!”


Drug companies are overseen by the FDA, which is operated by DOCTORS, guys who (we hope) know a little about science and biology. Banks are regulated by the Federal Reserve, which is managed by BANKERS, guys who (we hope) know a little about finance and economics. You get the idea.

But offshore drilling? The oil companies are regulated by government agencies who don’t know a thing about drilling for oil in deep water. And yet they feel qualified to oversee the process.
Which reminds me of the regulatory agencies that (together with Congress) compelled the banks to make all those subprime mortgage loans – and now blame the banks for their malfeasance in obeying.

And the regulators that permitted – even encouraged – the dozens of mergers between giant banking institutions, and now lament that they’re “too big to fail.”

BP doesn’t need a boot on their neck, to plug this hole. They don’t need to be threatened with footage of dead birds and polluted marshes. Their public image, their stock price, and their bank accounts are all taking a beating.

That’s all the motivation they need.

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