Photo courtesy of US Coast Guard

Photo courtesy of US Coast Guard

I’ve seen people variously describe the Gulf of Mexico catastrophe as “Obama’s Katrina” or “Obama’s 9/11,” but neither of those entirely works for me as a parallel.  True, the government was woefully unprepared and ineffectual in 2001 and 2005 too, but that was because Bush was the worst president ever, not because industry lobbyists crusaded to cripple FEMA and airport security.  Bush’s incompetence left the door to tragedy wide open, and Katrina and al Qaeda breezed right through it.

One can easily imagine an alternate reality where President Gore orders a full-court press after the August 6 PDB and has an actual crisis manager running FEMA, or one where Katrina was a little less powerful and the hijackers a little less competent.  Indeed, some have already done so.

But that’s not so easy to do with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, or the Upper Big Branch collapse and the financial meltdown before it, because the disasters we have now aren’t caused by perfect storms of outside forces and godawful presidents, they’re the inevitable consequence of decades of systemic rot in our regulatory structure – rot paid for greedy, reckless corporations and delivered by corrupt, irresponsible politicians.

If Wall Street’s derivatives scam hadn’t blown up in 2008, it would have blown up in 2009, or 2010.  If the Upper Big Branch mine hadn’t collapsed, some other safety-last mine would have (and, in fact, did).  And if the Deepwater Horizon hadn’t blown up as a result of cutting corners on construction and testing, some other shoddily constructed offshore rig would have.  Because the industries responsible pushed as hard as they could for the freedom to make catastrophic mistakes, and got it.  The bad apples got themselves put in charge of the orchard.

Now that we have witnessed the terrible consequences of underregulating industries with such awesome destructive power, these three questions come to mind:

1) Considering that this regulatory rot permeates the entire federal government, where will the next great disaster come from?

2) Will Obama and Congress take advantage of these crises to make their recurrences impossible?  (So far, not too promising.)

3) Will our presidents and lawmakers ever fully comprehend that letting corporations write their own rules and choose their own regulators invites disasters?  Will they ever start shoring up regulations and regulators proactively rather than simply playing whack-a-mole after each individual failure?