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The Cheapness That Is Not: Thoughts on the BP Spill

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The BP disaster is well on its way to becoming the biggest environmental disaster in history, having already surpassed epic slimings such as the Exxon Valdez and the 1979 Ixtoc spill. But even a mess of this magnitude has done nothing to deter the Drill, Baby, Drill crowd. These loyal petro-toadies are standing on guard for polluters everywhere, ensuring that this crisis does not become an opportunity for the Obama administration to do something seditious, anti-capitalist, and un-American, like enforcing safety regulations.

For example, noted energy expert Sarah Palin encouraged her faithful to check out a squib from right-wing loon Thomas Sowell. Sowell insisted that the 20 billion dollar BP fund was a sign the U.S. was on the slippery slope to Hitlerian tyranny. If Herr Obama can seize the private property of business concerns, then the Marxist Nazi Muslims have triumphed. The rule of law? Dead as a greasy seabird.

"If you believe the end justifies the means," Sowell writes, "then you don't believe in constitutional government." This is pretty hilarious, considering that it is the right wing who have justified any means whatsoever in pursuit of their ends, such as oil, money, and power. Seemingly endless war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the corruption of the political process, and environmental catastrophes like the BP spill are just the cost of doing business. Which businesses, curiously, should not be forced to pay.

That's precisely the argument Sowell's making, and Palin is endorsing. Oil junkiedom is just how real Americans live in the real world. Those who advocate conservation or green alternatives hate business. Being critical of any business-even chronically irresponsible, foreign corporate citizens like BP-means you hate business. And that, of course, equals hating America.

Since the Reagan revolution, businesses such as the financial services sector and the energy industry have enjoyed increased freedom from regulation and taxation, and increased freedom to draw on the public purse, to privatize profits and socialize losses.

The BP spill and the banking crises of the last few years are merely the most recent rotten fruits of this failed ideology. But the right soldiers on, undeterred by minutia such as the worst oil spill ever. Rush chides the President for shaking down the nice oil people, and Glenn Beck compares CEOs to Christians, martyred by the lions of Obama's "thugocracy".

But Teabag All-Stars like Limbaugh, Palin and Beck are pseudo-populists. They claim that they speak for real Americans, while they agitate on behalf of the world's most lucrative and destructive corporations. They just love sticking up for little guys like Tony Hayward, defending them from grabby Bolshevik rabble such as shrimpers and hotel owners.

In my new book, More Money Than Brains, I argue that this kind of pseudo-populism is one of the reasons why Americans are so willfully ignorant and anti-intellectual. The real elites-your BPs, Palins and Becks-have done a great job of casting the educated, the literate, as socialist strawmen, scapegoats, and cartoon villains.

I think the BP disaster is a perfect example of the more money than brains mindset, and its deleterious effects on us all. The more money than brains mindset tells us that the market is the ultimate arbiter of ideas, that wealth is the surest proof of smarts. And if you follow this way of thinking to its logical conclusion, you end up in a world where Miley Cyrus and Paris Hilton trounce low-income losers like Socrates and Shakespeare, and bigger numbers always equal better ideas.

This equation of money and brains helps answer a question many have been asking lo these past few months: Why did BP build a well it cannot fix? Because it was "cheaper" for them to do so. Because their cost-benefit analyses doubtless suggested that flouting the law and paying fines was much more economical than investing in a safer well. Makes perfect economic sense-until we discover once again that this kind of cheapness is not cheap at all.

Funny thing is events like the BP spill and recent banking crises show us that the more money than brains mindset is not always so great for money. Liberating the moneyed from the fetters of regulation and taxation-the only freedom the world's Becks and Palins really care about---has given us the opportunity to see just how poorly big businesses and banks govern themselves.

The economic costs of this way of thinking are becoming more and more obvious, with each stock market dipsy-doodle, with each new set of unemployment numbers, in the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. But events such as the BP spill also have costs that go way beyond the narrow, blinkered calculations of economics. What price tag can one affix, what fine can we levy, to compensate for the destruction of an irreplaceable ecosystem and a people's way of life? How many filthy billions can BP chuck into the chasm between the public and its leaders and ostensible experts?

In spite of all the environmental and economic wreckage the moneyed have wrought, their defenders insist that they know better than science nerds or government wonks. If science nerds and government wonks were really smart, they'd be the CEOs of giant corporations. Since the vast majority of scientists and environmentalists are not rich, then they must be suckers or stupid. Nerdy credentials like Ph.Ds are so antiquated and elitist, inferior to the only credential that really counts: a H.P.D, or huge pile of dough. Hey, just look at what a super job all those wealthy Wall Street guys have done with the banks.

The BP spill is yet another example of the way that pseudo-populists such as Palin and the rest of the Teabag All-Stars consistently create what they claim to despise: a world run by and for powerful elites.

Laura Penny is the author of Your Call Is Important to Us: The Truth About Bullshit and More Money Than Brains: Why School Sucks, College is Crap, and Idiots Think They're Right. She teaches at Mount Saint Vincent University and the University of King's College, in lovely Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, where she looks forward to seeing BP tarballs someday soon.