Posts Tagged ‘Mother Jones’

9/11, Katrina, and the BP Oil Spill: The Inconsistency of Compensation

May 29th, 2010 2 comments

The by-now predictable, tedious, and irresponsible Republican bulwark against raising or eliminating the criminally low liability cap that would leave claimant against BP out in the cold really has me frosted. And it’s gotten me thinking about how we compensate people for loss in front-page cases: September 11; Katrina; and this BP oil “spill.”

Let’s talk about who was responsible for these tragedies, and how the victims have (or haven’t been) compensated for their losses.

September 11 was, of course, a terrorist act, but under established principles of tort law, other actors could be liable: airport security, airlines, and — further down the chain — the federal government, for missing the warning signs. But the government, to bail out the struggling airline industry, and in an effort to pile sandbags full of money at the border, created the Victim Compensation Fund. At taxpayer expense, the Fund (not really a “fund” at all) paid out more than seven billion dollars, mostly to surviving family members of those killed when the Towers fell. Some received millions, because payment was largely based on a tort model. I’ve criticized this approach, noting that government should not be compensating people as though they’re tort victims, and that doing so reflects a confusion between the principles of corrective justice (righting an imbalance between two parties caused by one party’s negligence) and distributive justice (deciding how best to allocate the resources across society).

To call what happened in New Orleans “Katrina” is really a misnomer, because the hurricane isn’t what caused the widespread and continuing destruction of large sections of the city: the government did so, through the negligence of the Army Corps of Engineers in connection with the building and maintenance of the levee system, and of untold bureaucrats in designing the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (“MR-GO”). The government is immune from suit for the levee failure (but not for MR-GO related negligence), so those injured, financially wrecked, or rendered homeless in the wake of Katrina had to content themselves with the meager assistance afforded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. (Criticisms of FEMA’s response are legion and some, like this one from Kevin Drum in Mother Jones, are devastating; but they miss the more central issue.) I’ve criticized this approach in several places, including the documentary film “America Betrayed,” and this article.

Now comes the BP disaster, which threatens to swamp the rest. Yet because of an ill-considered federal law that I discussed here, BP will be liable for clean-up, but for only a relative pittance ($75 million) for liability to those economically or otherwise ruined. Unless this cap is lifted — and the legal change is made to apply retroactively — or unless there’s a government “fund” created, many of those destroyed by BP’s probable criminal acts will be entitled to…nothing.

How can our different responses to these tragedies be explained? Only by thinking about politics and power, not by looking at justice. But there might be a limit: Expect the law to change, and for BP to be held accountable. (Please!) If not, President Obama has suggested that the taxpayers will be on the hook. If we are (and I wouldn’t object), let’s spend more time thinking about a better model of compensation when we’re all left holding the bag.

And we must demand more comprehensive regulation: As Rachel Maddow pointed out this week (with her outrage well-justified by the facts), a similar spill went on for months about thirty years ago, and the same useless efforts were made then, as now, to stop it. She concludes, correctly, that Big Oil has gotten much better about drilling deeper and deeper (200 feet v. 5,000 feet), with correspondingly higher risks, but not any better at all about stopping it once it happens. Enough.

Avril 50

February 26th, 2010 No comments

The PW (Philadelphia Weekly) is a reliably entertaining, often deliberately provocative, local rag that fuses youth culture, politics, and a kind of literate F***-you attitude. This week’s issue is a cover-to-cover reminder that life is passing me by, as it sets out a quirky buffet of the city’s “hidden treasures” across an inexplicable but somehow coherent band of life. Some you have to read just because of the teaser line (“Best Place to Get Dissed by Skeletor” [a Karaoke MC at a bar]” or “Sports Figure with the Best Vaguely Pornographic Facial Hair” [I’m not going to tell you, but it’s a Phillie]), but most just make you wish you got out more often. Favorite example: Quizzo master Irish John (who really is from Belfast), who explains the rule against using an iPhone to call up answers in a no-nonsense way that we lawyers could learn from: “No Blackberries or iPhones; it’t bullshit and it’s pathetic.” Who’d cheat after that? It’s almost enough to send me back to a brick-sized, proto-phone.

There’s a lot to digest, laugh at, and put on one’s (fantasy) to-do list, so I took a few minutes to read the list a bit more thoroughly this afternoon. There’s a gay theater company (no, I didn’t even know that), and a therapy recovery group that was, insensitively and cluelessly, outed by the “PW Staff.” (Lots of furious comments in response.)  But then I noticed this: “Best Place to Get a a Hard-to-Find Magazine.” It turns out that the place, Avril 50, was only about two blocks from where I was reading, so I thought I might stop by. Since I knew the block well, I figured the place must be new. As I approached, though, the filthy awning told me otherwise.

It’s been there for 27 years, according to its icy-friendly proprietor, John Shahidi. It’s tiny and tucked between a couple of high-profile restaurants; easy to miss, I guess. Or maybe my lack of visual awareness is world-class.

What magazine would you like? Arthritis Today? It’s there. There was also a periodical I first read as Toast, which I thought showed remarkable optimism on the part of the publisher. (In this issue: “Why Can’t We Get Universal Darkness Settings?”). But wait: It was really Taost, which is about what you’d expect. Then there was The Comedians (America’s Comedy Magazine!), and the $20 dollar Eyemazing, a photo-art mag that might be the only future for printed periodicals. (It doesn’t look nearly as good on the net, but check it out anyway.) Shahidi can’t possibly be surviving on the magazines. (He also sells coffee and fancy tobaccos.) Some of these printed obscurities are backed up several issues deep, so they didn’t sell. Mother Jones, which actually might sell a few copies, cowered, unloved, in a corner, not yet removed from its binding. There are magazines sprawled in disarray to one side of the sales counter. In short, PW’s description of the place as “cozy” might be replaced by “overwhelming, claustrophobic, and unsettling.” But you should see it for yourself — you’ll be “eye-mazed” at the sheer diversity of  interests of these things called “humans” — and places like Avril 50 won’t be around much longer.