Wayne O’Leary

Caribbean Corporate Two-Step

Oil and immigration, the twin agonies of current American politics, are two sides of the same coin. Although they would appear to have nothing in common (one an energy problem, the other a demographic problem), they are strangely interlinked, a linkage forged by more than mere geographic proximity. The unifying thread is corporate power and influence.

The Deepwater Horizon oil-spill debacle is an outgrowth of not just a national overdependence on fossil fuels (which it is, of course) and not just an overreliance on increasingly risky offshore petroleum development (which it also is), but of government compromised by industry. To a remarkable degree, the posture of Washington officialdom through several administrations, Democratic and Republican, has been to ask no questions and make no demands, so long as the oil companies deliver the fuel and keep energy consumers happy.

The ball is now in President Obama’s court. His immediate problem is one of personnel. Obama, in his relentless search for inoffensive centrist cabinet members, chose for secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, the largely undistinguished former senator from Colorado. Salazar has turned out to be a lackluster timeserver — in truth, a political hack. Rather than an environmental crusader like Harold Ickes or Stewart Udall, who served FDR and JFK, respectively, Interior is occupied by someone whose chief recommendation is his acceptability to commercial interests, and the chips have now fallen.

Salazar’s career in the Senate featured numerous votes favoring industry over the environment, and his tenure at Interior has drawn the praise of, among others, the American Petroleum Institute, leading promoter of oil development. Small wonder, then, that one of his first actions in executive office was to permit Interior’s Mineral Management Service (MMS) to exempt British Petroleum from existing safety standards for drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, in order to facilitate BP’s completion of the Deepwater Horizon well.

The worst aspect of Salazar’s hands-off management style, however, has been his failure to promptly end the incestuous relationship between purported regulator MMS and the industry it was supposedly overseeing, an instance of “regulatory capture” if there ever was one. The well- publicized co-optation and corruption of this business-friendly agency was ignored by its departmental superior during the first 15 months of the new administration, and the president apparently took no notice. Indeed, why would they wake sleeping dogs? This is the way the oil business has been run since the first offshore Gulf well was drilled six decades ago.

Louisiana’s politicians, bought off for generations, were fine with “Drill, baby, drill” until disaster struck, and after Secretary Salazar worked on him a bit, so was President Obama. All parties still resist a permanent end to offshore oil exploration, preferring to believe the industry’s propaganda about the wonders and refinements of its supposed fail-safe deepwater technology. Besides, a total ban would be bad for business, and this is a pro-business government, as Wall Street will gladly attest. In fact, what’s needed is an indefinite moratorium on new deepwater activity along the US outer continental shelf until “risk management” catches up to drilling technology.

Not far from the oil-slicked waters of the Gulf of Mexico, on the terra-firma side of the Caribbean, is another example of corporate sway over public policy. Lax enforcement of American immigration laws, which has created what amounts to an open border with Mexico, is not accidental; it exists because powerful economic interests (in this case, the agribusiness sector) want it to exist. For generations, this country has been unable to reconcile the social-policy objectives of rational immigration with the demands of corporate America for a steady flow of cheap, docile labor.

The foreign workers, mostly Mexican, who come in search of work, tend to stay; an estimated 12 million of them are illegal or “undocumented” residents — a country within a country. The cynicism of US border control, the apparently intentional gap between law and enforcement, makes it just hard enough for surreptitious entry that those getting in opt to remain rather than traveling back and forth across the border at regular intervals. They know (they must know) that at some point their presence will be accepted through some sort of federal amnesty, and they can then emerge from the shadows; mass deportations are so draconian, so un-American, so expensive (an estimated $285 billion to expel all illegals) that they are, policywise, beyond the pale.

This state of affairs works for both major political parties. Republicans can gain votes by appealing to nativist sentiment, the feeling of being overwhelmed by newcomers, and the fear of added competition for low-level employment. Democrats can gain votes by appealing to the insecurities of first- and second-generation Americans, the minority pride of the Hispanic community, and the amorphous national ideal expressed in the term “a nation of immigrants.” In the meantime, agricultural and other labor-intensive industries gain economically by a guaranteed supply of nonunion workers too frightened and intimidated to expose themselves by visible protests on the job; they also gain in the short run by the downward pressure on wages exerted by an unorganized surplus labor force.

So all the major players concerned, politicians of all stripes and corporate agribusiness interests alike, benefit from the status quo, which is why the quo remains status. Solutions are hard to find. Fences won’t do the job; there’s always a way around them. Discriminatory state legislation, like Arizona’s “Papers, please” law, are no answer either; they promote social tension and potential violence. And a constant periodic enactment of federal amnesties is pointless; if they’re promised, the population flow northward will only accelerate.

There is one possible answer, however, that is rooted in history. It’s worth considering an updated, closely supervised, and flexibly managed version of the Mexican Farm Labor, or “Bracero,” Program, which from 1942 to 1964 annually permitted roughly 200,000 agricultural guest workers to obtain employment in the US on a temporary, contract basis. The Bracero Program, geared to legitimate needs and administered by the US Labor Department, mandated a fair level of wages, housing, food, and medical care paid for by employers (the reason it was discontinued in favor of open borders and illegal workers). Combined with serious penalties for hiring the undocumented, its resumption is one way to reassert federal control over yet another excessively influential corporate sector gone rogue.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2010


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