Gulf Coast Disaster: Let Them Eat Jobs
As the nation’s greatest environmental disaster unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico, it has become strikingly clear that environmental issues aren’t just about endangered owls and gorgeous views. They’re also about livelihoods, about the ways people make a living and their ability to pass down their way of life to their children. The oil slick off the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama threaten wildlife and human livelihoods in the same measure. “If it gets to the [marsh] grasses,” said one fisherman, “the natural abundance that we depend on is gone.”
President Obama’s efforts to reassure are hardly promising. BP will pay — but court cases following the Exxon Valdez disaster put quit to any expectation that long-term costs will be borne by the polluters. The Federal government will continue to do all it can to minimize the damage from the oil spill — but the response is in BP’s hands and damage is already widespread. Despite the dismal prospects for the region, Obama promised that the government will see to it that affected residents have jobs.
Lose your livelihood and your way of life. It’s OK. You can always have a job. Obama’s resort to the familiar cliche was no doubt unthinking. After all, it is a matter of faith for both liberals and conservatives that jobs are what make the economy go ’round, jobs are economic development, and it’s jobs people want when they worry about their future.
But for the self-employed, for those who’ve built a fishing or oystering or tour boat business from scratch, for those who live by the sea because they love the way of life, a job, just any job, isn’t much of a consolation for the loss of their independence, self-reliance and deep knowledge of their business and their place. A job, for someone who has carved out their own place in the world, might even be considered little more than wage slavery.
Wage slavery. Few know it, but “wage slavery” is a deeply American phrase, coined not by Karl Marx but by struggling American farmers and working people at the very beginning of the nineteenth century when most Americans worked for themselves but also found their independence threatened by an emerging mercantile and corporate economy, nurtured by the courts and promoted by ambitious schemes of national development along lines first sketched by Alexander Hamilton. The new economy would be built on debt and taxes, and the winners would, over the course of the next two hundred years, come to employ the vast majority of the population. Sizable majorities of those present at the birth of the nation, however, saw not liberation but enslavement in the prospect of a United States of wage earners.
Were these early rebels — who were also often the heroes of struggles to democratize the aristocratic state constitutions of the day — so far off the mark? For liberal and conservative intellectuals, business leaders, and professionals, the idea is just unthinkable. They may revel in their job satisfaction even where they answer to a boss. But for most people, a job is just a job, and the boss may be benevolent or cruel or just stupid, but he or she is always the boss. “Do what you’re told, and keep your mouth shut” is the wisdom that governs most people’s work life.
It was certainly the dubious wisdom that kept miners at work at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where a disaster foretold took the lives of 29 miners in April. Recent testimony by survivors, widows and relatives of the dead make clear that conditions were extraordinarily unsafe at the mine. But workers who might have walked off the job in protest, if they had been unionized, were routinely dismissed if they raised safety concerns.
The eleven workers who died in the explosion that sank BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig were well paid by any standard. Some of them may have thrilled at the danger of a job that set them far out at sea with risks they couldn’t always anticipate. But if they knew they were in immediate danger, it’s not clear that they had any more recourse than the Upper Big Branch miners.
It’s unlikely that any of BP’s even better paid executives will go to jail for those deaths, even if the evidence that they were involved in criminal negligence is substantial. It is even less likely that the corporation itself — or Halliburton, which had just completed work on the well, or Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig — will suffer more than a handslap. Corporations don’t go to jail. Corporations — persons though they be, according to our courts — don’t face the death penalty. Corporations, after all, provide the jobs that are the lifeblood of the economy. As for their victims, those that survive, and the multiple ways of life that were built on the Gulf Coast’s natural resources, well, a way of life can always be replaced — with jobs.