I remember realizing early in my career that even people with doctorates don't really know what they're doing.
The other day on the radio, I heard some former executive of some huge oil company being interviewed about the giant clusterfuck in the Gulf. The DJ kept saying, "But how could this happen?" And the executive went on and on about the U.S. government and how if they hadn't been so far offshore, it wouldn't have been so bad, but when pressed, he finally said something about the doohickey that had failed that was never supposed to fail because it was fail-proof. And then there was an unusual dead-radio pause.
I stood there staring at my horrible bedhead thinking I could shower but I wasn't going to shower because I was going to try to squeeze in a workout over lunch, and somewhere into my thoughts crept the O-ring guy.
Whenever something like this happens, I think about the person somewhere in the bowels of the corporation or government agency that knew it was entirely possible for the doohickey to fail.
This person exists in every company, but he or she is usually removed from the decision-makers by several degrees of managerial magnitude. Having existed in large corporations, I can picture the conversations that O-ring guy had with his co-workers, with his wife. But it could go wrong, it could fail, it could get too hard or not go off or whatever the worst-case scenario may be, he'd say, and eyes would be averted, subjects changed, dinner served.
Because if you're not the decision-maker, there's only so much you can do. You just live with the knowledge the doohickey could fail and pray that it doesn't.
The executives making the decisions may or may not have been properly briefed about the possibilities of the doohickey failing. There were business decisions to be made, and as the executive on the radio said, the doohickey had never failed before in all of the thousands of rigs that had been built.
Somebody played the numbers, knowing that inevitably in a world where chaos is our normal and order is painstakingly instilled only with extreme effort, it is always entirely possible for the doohickey to fail. Want to see the power of chaos? Try to plant a garden in straight rows and then don't weed it. See what you have in two months. Order can only be maintained with extreme effort and vigilance. Ignore any part of your operation, and you will get decay, disarray and doohickeys failing right and left.
The executives probably stared at their high-level, one-page, bullet-pointed, templated executive overview PowerPoints and agreed that the bottom line and the shareholders must be considered, and the doohickey would probably not fail. And, unspoken -- somewhere in all of those boardrooms in corporations and government agencies across America and across the globe -- hangs the alternative: If it fails, well, then, we're all fucked.
So now, today, President Obama will go down to Louisiana to experience his own personal Katrina or Challenger and stare into the faces of people terrified their fishing livelihoods have just gone down an oil-coated drain and perhaps witness some marine life coated in guck and listen to James Carville rage and everyone will say how could this happen?
Well, hell, it happened because at some point in the decision-making tree, executives rolled the dice. They decided to stop with the doohickey, because the doohickey never failed. Just like NASA rolled the dice with the O-ring and New Orleans rolled the dice with the levees. Nature is unpredictable; machines -- as much as we hate to admit it -- are unpredictable. Keeping things properly maintained and quadruple checking is expensive, and those shareholders -- they don't like expenses. Our stock market is a fickle bitch, and she doesn't like hints that something could go wrong, so executives say things like "the doohickeys have never failed." And we buy it like marshy real estate, over and over.
Any time you are messing around with nature, something will go wrong. Any time you venture into an area where people wouldn't normally exist from an evolutionary perspective -- underwater, outer space, in a city built on a floodplain -- it's a matter of time until something fail-proof fails. Metal and wood are no match for the elements. We delude ourselves into thinking we can control the planet until she drops a giant tsunami on our shorelines.
The question for me isn't how could this happen but why didn't it happen sooner? I'm not necessarily saying we shouldn't explore space or drill for oil (though I'd prefer wind and solar, living in the middle of the country where it is bountiful, but my Corolla still likes gasoline, dammit) or live in New Orleans, but if we choose to do so, we must do so understanding the risks. We must slow down and take time and fund levee repair and build back-up doohickeys for the fail-proof doohickeys and our shareholders and our stock market should have a Coke and a smile and shut the fuck up because it is still cheaper to invest in doing things cautiously than to clean up the mess when the failproof doohickey blows up in a craptacular geyser.
I don't know if Obama will have the influence to do anything other than point fingers and try to inflict regulations on an oil industry prostrate to the almighty dollar. Executives make decisions because they are beheld to make money, and making money in a system of quarterly returns runs counter intuitive to well laid plans.
I don't know what the answer is, but in the past ten years I've become convinced that capitalism drives us to more bad decisions than any other element in our society. There's got to be a way to slow down the reporting, to allow for long-term, carefully measured growth. Capitalism works when it's not constantly in fast-forward, but companies rise and fall so quickly now there's barely time for the O-ring to be created, let alone for the engineer down in Sector B to explain how it works.
Blame BP -- and they should be blamed -- but the problem is bigger than that. When dealing with such dangerous tasks, the engineer needs more time to think. We don't give him or her that. And we don't always tell the executives what they don't want to hear. And even if they know, they don't tell Wall Street until they get called up by Congress to explain themselves.
We shouldn't be shocked.
The question is not why did it fail, but why didn't it fail sooner?