Sunday, 21 November 2010

No Smoky Room, No Smoking Gun: Corporate priorities in the case of BP

Reportage relating to the the US commission into BP's catastrophic oil spillage:

BP, firms did not shirk safety for money - panel

Well, that is the headline, but what was actually said is:

"To date we have not seen a single instance where a human being made a conscious decision to favour dollars over safety," the commission's Chief Counsel Fred Bartlit said at a meeting exploring the causes of the Gulf of Mexico spill.

This is a general problem in corporate governance: heads of corporations operate by setting incentives, and really don't want to know (certainly not undeniably) the dirty details of how objectives are met. No-one needs to say 'prioritise profit over safety'. We know that safety regimes on oil rigs are dreadful, and it's pretty clear that the reason is one of cost (what else? Love of carnage?). Budgets are set, regulators are captured. Of course profit has priority over safety: the safest course would be to go out of business, and the reason that course is not taken is profit. The rest is haggling, and the 'Health and Safety' side in that arbitration is very obviously not going to get the better of that arbitration.

To take a slight tangent 'Heath and Safety', thanks to a media campaign which goes in tandem with the anti-EU-regulation crusade, has becone a dirty word in common parlance, not by coincidence. Both campaigns resemble that mounted in the early 80's, most notably by the Sun, against the 'Loony Left' and what would now be called 'political correctness', particularly in their cherry-picking and gross exaggeration and distortion of anecdotal accounts - 'baa baa green sheep' and other stories. Poltical correctness is now a confirmed third member of the unholy trinity, though opposition to it is less obviously (or less directly) related to the interests of business.

Back to that general problem: this is not only an issue in corporate governance, but governance in general, and indeed corporacy in general. Wrongdoing by governments or other groups can occur without anyone involved being consciously directly focused on the objectionable aspect of the group's activities.

In this case, all it takes is for the budget to be allocated in a certain way, skimping on technical safety advice for example, and hey presto, no conscious decision to reduce safety. Not only is 'conscious decision' avoided when the status quo is acceptable and needs no intervention, but negligence and recklessness are precisely not a question of 'conscious decision'. The subtleties of of self-deception, special pleading and bias also have a part to play in 'quasi-conspiracy' - thrusting business types can easily transmute their desire to save time and money by disregarding safety into impatience with troublemakers and spoilers - and so certain regulators may be lobbied against, certain employees dismissed or moved to positions in which their bad attitude, lack of team spirit, etc. won't cause problems.

Quasi-conspiracy as I've called it is a recurring aspect of many episodes I've looked into while researching general aspects of conspiracy and coinspiracy theories. This is an excellent example of the way in which the 'smoky room' model of conspiracy (or quasi-conspiracy) theories can obscure the rather more subtle realities. This image of conspiracy is commonly used to dismiss 'conspiracy theories' - because the 'smoky room' scenario, accompanied by explicit and direct command and control, is generally somewhat implausible (though nowhere near as implausible as it's often painted).

Another account of Bartlit's remarks includes this direct invocation of the 'smoky room' model.

We've studied the hell out of this. We welcome anybody that gives us something we've missed, but we don't see a person or three people, sitting there at a table considering safety and costs, and giving up safety for costs. We have not seen that, and you have to be sure you understand that.

One big problem is that the 'smoky room' image puts off those on the left who do think that business acts in business interests and does so in hidden (though discoverable) ways. Noam Chomsky, for example, has a fairly hostile attitude to 'conspiracy theories' in the abstract, though whether he is pandering to the dominant image or actually subscrbes to it is unclear (and of little importance). I've examined Chomsky's attitude before and noted that when it comes to actual individual cases of conspiracy Chomsky takes a much more reasonable attitude.

And in general, the left has tended to reject conspiratorial accounts because of a lingering commitment to a structural or institutional analysis of power relations which is incorrectly thought to preclude any reference to plots and more generally (and even more ludicrously) to individual motives and actions. There was some dispute over this matter in the 80s, in which Ralph Miliband, father of David and Ed, appealed for proper empirical research into the actual operation of power, in particular state power, but I get the impression that many of the posturing pseudo-intellectuals who did so much to piss away Marx's legacy in the 70s considered such a project far too much like hard work, and far too unglamorous to sit well with their own legover-orientated project.

Motives aside, the headline technical issue here is in a way the opposite of the right-wing (defenders of those currently powerful) approach, such as that manifested by Popper, and for once provides a reasonably good example of the meeting-round-the-back of left and right that is such a favourite theme of the soi-disant moderate.

The right-wing approach tends to emphasise unpredictability and human error, which chimes in nicely with the general idea that getting anything done by co-operation is basically impossible. The neoclassical Liberal supplants co-ordinated action with individual actions coordinated only by 'market forces', price 'signalling' etc. (The invisible hand that 'co-ordinates' actions in this model is we are told, handily enough, a benevolent one.)

Left and right approaches as described here have in common the bizarre consequence that what actual people actually do drops out of the analysis altogether. Actual plans, intentions, actions and motives are either determined from above by the forces of history, or driven from below by market forces. I have no implacable abstract objection to either approach - no theoological insistence on transcendent freedom of the will, no jowly Johnsonian harrumphing about common sense, no romantic preoccupation with kings and heroes and great deeds. My objections are more humdrum - that both accounts are basically just made up for transparently ideological reasons, and that neither comes anywhere near accurately describing what is going on, nor of predicting what will go on, nor of explaining what has actually gone on.

Which is not to say that there is no room for systematic and technical treatments of the mechanisms - maybe even general laws - involved in conspiratorial and quasi-conspiratorial activity. Social psychology, sociology, historiography, poltical science, even the much-maligned media studies: all are of relevance. Unfortunately, it's very much a case of 'sociologist, study thyself' - because there has been relatively little work in this area that I've been able to identify. As in the 70s, radicalism and rebellion in the academy seems to be diverted into fairly harmless theorising - only now rather than Althusser and Marxisticism we have postmodern textual analysis of things which are not texts, and ironic wanking about 'popular' culture. Looking into the real mechanisms of power seems to be too daunting an uphill struggle for your average radical academic. No doubt this is somewhat unfair, but unfortunately only somewhat. I wish someone would prove me wrong.

...but back to BP: as well as being limited to the question of whether a human being made a conscious decision of a very specific content, Bartlitt's remark of course only asserted a lack of evidence for any such decision, and did not amount to the claim that there was no such decision. Unless you think that all top-level decisions made by execs are fully documented in minutes rather than, say, being informally scoped out at the club or on the golf course, it should be fairly obvious that the distinction between absence of evidence and evidence of absence is germane in this case.


  1. Would a discussion about safety on a golf course, unbeknowst to the board of the company (still less the staff), be a conspiracy? And would it make a difference if the advice was reasonable as opposed to immoral? Apologies for any obtuseness on my part, in advance.

  2. Well, the term 'conspiracy' is basically one which in most contexts (pretty much all except the technical legal one) should be eliminated as far as possible since it is irreparably broken as far as I'm concerned.

    I'm not exactly a moral relativist (whatever such a thing is supposed to be exactly), but I do think that incorporating broad moral categories into an analysis of the operation of power is likely to muddy the waters significantly and indeed to obscure disctinctions which cut across right/wrong and good/bad.

    So if I really had to decide the question one way or the other, I suppose I would say that both would be a 'conspiracy'. (Compare the Father Christmas or Tooth Fairy conspiracies.)

    Blair's 'sofa government' was 'conspiratorial' in this sense - i.e. secretive, bypassing officially recognised channels - and I would want people to be able to agree with this even if they approve of some or all of the deliverances of that planning and decision-making process.

  3. --Many leftists are in the position of needing to prove the corruption and skullduggery of the right (or corporate liberals for that matter), but in so doing, risk being labelled as vulgar empiricists, positivists, cops, liberals, etc. Thank postmodernism for that, probably--demanding proof, evidence, data became anathema. As you suggest. That said, Popper seems fairly...simple-minded at times, eg, his writing on Hume and induction. (or Hegel for that matter). Evidentialism via Clifford nearly sufficed a few decades before the "positivists" arrived.

    --speaking of simple-minded, Holblo's back on Crooked Timber, and people actually take his points seriously. Zizek at least entertains at times (at least when not chanting Lacan), and Holblow as usual is misreading someone. The point on utilitarianism and the rat-experiment seems to be that...many humans don't know what they want, or rather what they want may not be what they need. SZ thus upholding platonic and/or stalinist tradition. Singer-- maybe JH might care to defend Singer's utilitarian arguments for infant cannibalism.