The departure of BP's CEO, Tony Hayward, is hardly surprising and long overdue. Its new Chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, is likely headed for a pink slip. But their blunders were not just about the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. Both made statements that reveal the worrisome mindset of transnational oil's aristocrats who "govern" massive portions of the world's economy.
BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil have revenues equivalent to the GDPs of Austria and Indonesia. They are big because they are enterprising, take risks and employ hard-working people. But they are also big because of OPEC and because Americans buy gas guzzlers.
Like all behemoths, some behave like latter-day colonial powers, intruding into local economies for gain and bringing with them sociological baggage.
For instance, BP's Hayward behaved like a privileged boarding school boy by claiming that he "wanted his life back" after 11 people had lost theirs on one of his company's rigs. But he wasn't removed, and the BP board -- obviously also existing in a parallel universe of privilege -- kept him in place despite his damning sound-byte.
Next followed another blunder-boss BP's Chair Svanberg. He dispatched himself to the United States to review the troops, so to speak, to do some public relations damage control and meet the President.
But he turned out to be worse than Hayward.
"Channeling" the sentiments of a 19th Century robber baron, Svanberg said, after meeting President Obama, that BP was generously compensating "the small people". He had to apologize after his remarks created a media firestorm.
Ironically, the remark would disqualify him from Chairman-of-the-Year even in Britain where the class system still exists and everyone differentiates between "big people" and "small people".
Of course, class distinction exists in America too.
The difference is that the guys on Wall Street kept their disdain about the masses to themselves over martinis and, by so doing, were able to get the masses to bail them out and to keep their jobs.
The differing BP and Wall Street outcomes point to another development: Sensitive public relations and passports may have begun to trump everything even in the world of globalization and transnationals big enough to swallow up Zambia as a subsidiary. So BP will have an American as CEO to mop up the mess. And so will Toyota is my guess. BP's boss, Robert Dudley, is from the south and will wave the flag in the corridors of power and will edit his talking points so that they sympathize with victims instead of treating them like collateral damage in the colonies.
And he will feel their pain all the way to the bank.
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