Not His Problem

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Hearing the president and his friends rant against British Petroleum because of the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico reminds me of the justifiably forgotten film, “The China Syndrome” (1979).

I saw it again on television a few months ago, and it was as bad as I remembered it. I’m not concerned with the production values or the acting. It does star the ineffable Jane Fonda, although this isn’t one of her many worst roles. You can’t pay much attention to the acting, however, when the basic concept is so funny.

“China Syndrome” is about a nuclear power plant that is continuously on the brink of blowing up and, perhaps, burning through the earth till it gets to China. Its owners understand the danger and do everything in their power not to do anything about it. They don’t want to spend the money to fix the defective systems. Apparently, they’d rather have the plant explode.

That’s not what the movie says. It merely indicates that the owners know the danger and vigorously try to cover it up — which amounts to saying that they would rather have their plant explode than do anything to fix it.

Does this concept make any sense? The answer is no, it doesn’t. “The China Syndrome” is a movie in which the villain keeps tying himself to the railroad tracks.

I’ll admit that the concept is venerable. It’s been with us for quite some time. A century ago, socialists and “progressives” loved to discuss capitalists’ “mad rush to their own destruction.” H.L. Mencken satirized the idea — but, in a signal refutation of the concept that the pen is mightier than the sword, FDR embraced it, declaring that he would, by force of law, save capitalism from the capitalists.

And now we have Obama, acting as if the BP executives didn’t care whether they ruined their own company (along with “the ecology,” which can mean something or anything). “I say, old chap, you know, don’t you, that your oil rig is about to blow up and poison all the fishes in the sea?” “Certainly, Sir Harley. Good show, what?”

The truth is that people in business care whether they lose a fortune or not. The truth is also that people in government often do not care whether people in the private sector lose a fortune, especially if the aforesaid politicians can step in and pretend to save them from themselves.

Alan Greenspan and Barney Frank — the latter of whom I once saw waddling across the waiting room at National Airport, a fat, sloppy man clutching a tall ice cream cone, and gazing at the thing as if it were the miraculous oracle — became heroes to their political constituents when they engineered the interest rates and mortgage procedures that broke the national bank. They weren’t intending to do that, and if they had been, they wouldn’t have been intending to ruin any enterprise of their own. If you read what they’ve written and look at their interviews and public statements, you’ll see that they’re still very pleased with themselves. Their self-esteem is fully intact, and that’s what’s most important to them. They didn’t try to destroy their own business.

But President Obama comes along, alleging that BP and the banks and Wall Street and the big corporations — all of them — want to enrich themselves, by what? By fatally damaging themselves.

People may make mistakes and thereby damage a large enterprise. Even Obama may do that! But the special thing about Obama, and Frank, and Greenspan, and all the other meddlers is that if they ruin the business, they’ve only ruined other people’s.

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