Finger-pointing won’t stop oil from leaking in Gulf or fix Wall Street

The Record
By CHRISTIE WHITMAN
June 8, 2010

We ought to look at ourselves before blaming a single institution, company or individual for our collective problems.

These days, it seems our nation needs to blame someone for any and every problem that arises.

Although this is certainly understandable, our desire to cast blame can take our attention away from the problem at hand and, more important, from the solution we must create.

President Obama illustrated this perfectly last week when he pointed fingers at those who were already pointing fingers at others regarding the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. This followed several days of finger-pointing on Capitol Hill when the BP executives appeared before a congressional panel. Simply put, the finger-pointing is getting out of hand, and this is an obvious teaching moment.

The situation in the Gulf is nothing short of a disaster, with dramatic costs to humans and wildlife. Yet finding the party to blame — while emotionally satisfying in the short term — will not stop oil from gushing into coastal waters, and that has to be our first priority right now.

Although it is crucial to determine what exactly happened on the oil rig that led to this disaster, that type of questioning should be handled by professional investigators, not grandstanding politicians. Congressional hearings at this point only serve to distract those who need to be working to stop the leak and clean up the mess. There will be plenty of time for Congress to investigate this disaster once it is brought under control.

After all, I doubt anyone would say we learned much from the first set of hearings. What we should be talking about is how we curb our appetite for oil and what kind of comprehensive energy plan we can develop for the country. That’s where congressional hearings can make a difference.

The recent global financial meltdown is another example of the blame game run amok. When it comes to finding the guilty party, investment banks blame hedge funds and other entities that engaged in short selling. Congress blames Wall Street and the “big banks.” Liberals blame predatory lenders and Wall Street. Conservatives blame the Securities and Exchange Commission. Everyone blames the ratings agencies.

The problem with this tendency to cast blame is that it allows us to exculpate ourselves from personal responsibility. By blaming Wall Street, the automakers, insurers and other companies are seemingly absolved of their role as market participants who dealt, and continue to deal, in as complex financial instruments as investment banks.

By making Goldman Sachs the iconoclastic evil banker, Congress can ignore the lending standards they loosened (and backed through the government-sponsored enterprises) that led to people getting loans they could not afford, and sub-prime lenders having the false sense that their behavior was riskless. Congress can also walk away from their undoing of the Glass-Steagall Act, which opened the door for abuse in the derivatives market.

The reality is that a large percentage of Americans were complicit in the economic crisis, as they spent money, whether personally or professionally, they did not have. More than half of Americans have revolving credit card debt, illustrating that they failed to keep their spending at or below their earnings.

Prior to the downturn, individuals and families bought homes and goods on credit they could not afford to repay. Wall Street was overleveraged, extending its investment to unprecedented capital ratio levels. And, let’s not forget, governments local and national were deficit-spending with perceived impunity.

Similarly, in concentrating our blame on BP or the specific agency within the Department of the Interior for destroying the Gulf Coast, we ignore the role our extreme consumption of oil has had in creating the circumstances that led to this disaster. We need to decide the best use of oil — fuel for our motorized vehicles or material for stationary purposes? Would we be better served if we sought other fuel for vehicular use, conserved oil better and developed clean energy?

Whether it is our dysfunctional budgeting or our enduring need for resources that carry great risk in extraction, we ought to look first at ourselves before blaming a single institution, company or individual for our collective problems.

This trend toward a more intense blame game is no doubt driven in part by the increasing availability of media. But it’s time we remember that most, if not all, of us play roles in the major crises we face together. Let’s stop looking for the scapegoat and start asking what we can do individually to stop the problems in the future.