Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Outrage Is There... But Where Is the Outlet?

In Theatre History class, I discuss the economic conditions of the 19th century which, I argue, structurally parallel the rise of the director in the theatre. I talk a lot about the anonymity of the new economy. Whereas there was a time when a customer who had a problem with Joe’s Widgets demanded to see Joe (and Joe made things right), the increasingly complex economies of the last century and a half have brought in the age of Amalgamated Widgetcorp, and a customer service problem gets routed to a phone bank in India.

This downside of a modern economy is never more evident than in the public’s inability to know how to protest against a company that has no retail presence when they do something remarkably obscene, like, say, when Transocean gives millions of dollars in bonuses to its executives in celebration of their safety record. You remember Transocean, right? The good folks who were right in there with BP in creating the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the one that killed eleven people and caused perhaps irrevocable harm to an entire ecosystem? The ones who effectively kidnapped survivors of the explosion, not allowing them to even call their loved ones to assure them of their continued existence, lest they might say something that would… uh… let the rest of us know the truth of what happened? The clever fellows who invoked an obscure 19th-century law to try to wriggle out of their responsibilities to those people, present and future, harmed by their malfeasance? The ones who, although really a US company, moved their incorporation first to the Cayman Islands and then to Switzerland to avoid taxes? Yeah, those guys.

Well, these paragons of virtue are now rewarding their upper management for their amorality, their callousness, indeed their criminality. Of course, it is true that the safety record for 2010 wasn’t really much worse than in previous years. There had, after all, been fatalities at Transocean facilities in 2002, 2003, and 2007. The Wall Street Journal reports that “[n]early three of every four incidents that triggered federal investigations into safety and other problems on deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico since 2008 have been on rigs operated by Transocean, according to an analysis of federal data.” This “despite during that time owning fewer than half the Gulf of Mexico rigs operating in more than 3,000 feet of water.”

In surveys conducted in 2008 and 2009 by Energy Point Research, says the WSJ, Transocean was rated last in job quality and second to last in overall satisfaction. Respondents to the survey are clients of the various drillrig corporations. 77 people were evacuated from the Deepwater Horizon rig itself in 2008.

At least in 2009 and 2010 Transocean had the sense not to reward (at least explicitly) the executives who, through incompetence, amorality, or simple charlatanism, were responsible for condoning if not abetting the company’s frankly rather dismal safety record. (One of the greatest ironies of recent times was the celebration of safety on the Deepwater Horizon on the very day of the Gulf disaster.)

But now, Transocean has, less than a year after the horrific events of last April 20, decided to create the Orwellian specter of rewarding safety performance that doesn’t exist. We have, after all, always been at war with Eurasia. (Is the linguistic similarity between Oceania and Transocean a coincidence? Enquiring minds want to know.) Perhaps, of course, by the corporation’s calculus, they did have “an exemplary statistical safety record as measured by our total recordable incident rate and total potential severity rate.” (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, did you enjoy the play?)

But here’s the point: even if the overall safety record of Transocean for the past year really has been exemplary by industry standards, it is still a remarkably arrogant and bone-headed move to remind the rest of us of what surely must rank as one of the biggest PR calamities in corporate history. And it doesn’t even matter if Transocean wasn’t really principally to blame for the events in the Gulf last spring: they’re linked to them in the public consciousness, so the bonuses to perceived perpetrators are a slap in the face to anyone who thinks that even multi-billion dollar corporations ought to be held responsible for their actions.

These bonuses, in other words, are as bad for the corporation’s reputation as they are hubristic and greedy. But, of course, a company like Transocean just doesn’t care. When Target, which made part of its reputation on being allied to more progressive causes than its chief competitor, Wal-Mart, contributed to the campaigns of virulently anti-gay candidates, it spawned a boycott. Now, the effect of the boycott was no doubt negligible in direct terms: the few hundred dollars in gross sales that this or that consumer spent elsewhere isn’t likely to bring a corporation the size of Target to its knees. But the boycott was well-publicized and ongoing. Corporations don’t like bad publicity. Target changed its practices.

Transocean, on the other hand, can’t be boycotted by an incensed public. Do I shift my business from the Chevron gas I usually get at the convenience store closest to my house to the Exxon gas at the convenience store closest to my office to avoid a product that has been pumped through a Transocean rig? Or are both OK? Or neither? No, the only people who can boycott Transocean are folks like the decision-makers at BP and Shell, not exactly exemplars of corporate ethics, themselves. And, of course, the outrage seen here and elsewhere won’t matter a whit to those who, like Transocean CEO Steven L. Newman, see no reason even to pretend to inhabit the moral and ethical universe of the rest of us.

It’s only a matter of time before this sorry excuse for a human being shows up as an expert commentator on Fox, CNN, or CNBC. If I might switch dystopian novels on you, dear reader, welcome to the Brave New World.


Korrupted1300 said...

Is there really nothing that can be done? I'm infuriated at the safety bonuses Transocean gave out. Hell, im still angry about the spill! Corporate entities and the people who hide behind their corporate shield should have to answer for their actions!

manjushri924 said...

I wish I had an answer. It used to be that public humiliation could help. But shame only works on those who aren't shameless. As long as oil companies continue to use Transocean's facilities, the only hope is for a stockholder revolt: unlikely, since the fat cats control the majority of the shares.