BP and Massey - Thinking About Public vs Private Good

On my way home tonight I caught an extraordinary NPR investigative report on Massey Energy and its recent Big Branch Mine disaster.  While formal investigations continue there sure is a lot of evidence that Massey was struggling to make this mine work safely, but continued each day to put regular people in conditions which could, and did, result in more than two dozen deaths. 

This report comes, of course, as the BP oil spill continues for almost its thirtieth day, in what may be the single largest coproration-induced environmental disaster in history. 

Each of this cases raises basic questions about the role of corporations in broader civil society.  If Massey execs are shown to have taken actions that they knew could have resulted in the death of their employees, could they be tried for murder?  And what about BP? Should a corporation really have the kind of power to engage in activity that could kill dozens of people through their negligence, or ruin an entire region of the planet?  If they are given the right by society to conduct these dangerous and potentially lethal activities what ultimate responsibility do they have to all of us to do everything within their power to avoid the very worst? And what happens in the case of a Massey when there is evidence the company did not do what the government asked to make things safer for the people in the mine?

What is perhaps most disturbing in each of these cases (and with the recent financial crisis) is that there is evidence that the governmental agencies set up to monitor these dangerous activities were ineffective or compromised.  This week the head of the agency (MMS) who approved the BP rig, who had enough in his record to draw questions about his abilities, retiredMuch has been written about the corruption and scandals which plagued this agency, and Massey has been cited repeatedly for safety violations at Big Branch (NYTimes had a great story on MMS Friday).

In the Bush years I often wrote about how the modern conservative movement had lost its way, and had become a craven advocate for those with power and privilege against the interests of every day people and the common good.  These two disasters remind us of how our government lost touch in the Bush era with that special balance between private and public interest which has made America so admirable and successful, tilting way too far in recent years towards the private at the expense of the public. 

Finding that new and better balance between public and private good should certainly be a goal of those in power in the years ahead.  And what one does about a Massey or a BP - companies whose actions have caused so much societal harm - will be one of the great questions which will need to be answered.  Fines and payments seem inadequate now for both of them given the damage they've caused.  

If you can be sure to listen to the NPR piece I link to above - it is a remarkable, and terribly tragic, story.