COLUMN: Shocked, shocked to find oil in this establishment

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, June 6, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Shocked, shocked to find oil in this establishment
By Aaron J. Brown

I’m supposed to have a very strong opinion about all this BP offshore oil spill down South. That’s what the TV tells me. I guess I do. Oil is in my car, in the gas that fuels my car, in the tank that heats my house and in most things I own in the form of plastic. So I guess I’m mad at the Gulf of Mexico for taking all my oil. Serves you right, rare birds.

Of course, I kid. I’m appropriately upset about the whole thing, but no one – not me, you or the bearers of bright, white teeth on the TV should be surprised. We’re less than two years separated from the political slogan “drill, baby, drill” used in a serious national campaign and now we’ve seen some of the logistical hazards of extracting oil from the deep sea. It’s as shocking as the fact that somewhere tonight there’s somebody doing somebody wrong (cue steel guitar). If you don’t like it, try going without oil products for one day. See how that works for you. Maybe then the oil companies won’t need to drill in the ocean. If you try that, probably you’ll be left with some lingering questions about the nature of our economy.

My first awareness of oil came as a boy, living on my family’s junkyard on northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. Barrels of used oil were all over the place. The one thing all these barrels had in common with the rest of the junk on the junkyard was that when the junkyard went broke and out of business the barrels and junk went someplace else, someplace I can’t quite pinpoint, probably never will. And life went on. Or did it?

The gulf coast oil spill is much bigger than any junkyard. Indeed, the crisis in the gulf threatens to turn a massive ecosystem into a permanent junkyard. Whether it was my family’s failed business, money trouble that plagued many millions of Americans over the past 20 years, or the real estate collapse, environmental changes, health care or debt – personal and federal – none of the big issues today should surprise us. While all of these topics are some version of controversial, none are dismissible. All require difficult, unpopular solutions. The real question is whether a majority of Americans can accept that. It seems from my casual observation that cobbling a majority to do anything unpopular will require extraordinary circumstances and leadership – all of which will face scorn and misinformation. Most of what we see on national news programs is some combination of scorn and misinformation, with just fleeting glimpses of entrepreneurial journalism.

The oil spill story is just one of many stories of late, among health care reform, the “tea party,” the wars overseas and the state budget gap, that push irony beyond its healthy boundaries. It really doesn’t matter whether you’re a partisan Democrat or Republican, a conservative, liberal or independent. Few who carry those labels are willing to own up to reality. For liberals, solving the big problems of debt, economic development and this ugly oil spill require not just massive government efforts but also the means to pay for them – in the form of tax increases and cuts in government functions that aren’t working. For conservatives, the same problems would have to be solved with much larger cuts to government services – particularly entitlements now considered politically untouchable – and a decreased federal capacity to address issues precisely like the oil spill. Indeed, the private sector might respond independently – but that’s a lot of faith to put in the teachings of Ayn Rand when watching an oil slick grow larger than New England.

I realize combining the oil spill, health care and the national debt all in one argument is dangerously close to a fallacy. There are plenty of different points of views on all these issues and while I have my opinions, I’m not here to push them on you. All I ask is that in this “summer of oil, anger,” as the Associate Press recently described it, ask yourself how innocent you and your neighbors are in the real problems that fuel these national outrages. I’m certainly not. The oil is on my hands, too.

Aaron J. Brown is a columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune and the author of “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.” Read more at his blog


  1. Anonymous says

    Good article Aaron…You’re correct, we’re all a part of these issues…and all can play a part in positively moving forward. Here’s my take on how.

    Oil spill – Industrial accident

    Determine cause – adjust regulations accordingly. There are numerous risky, dangerous industries, chemicals and processes that add significantly to lifes value and are managed very well, nuclear for example. Oil can be also. As you say, oil ain’t going away.

    Health Care – Ideological issue

    What degree of health care, if any, and its associated costs is government obligated to provide? This will be debated for some time. Let it continue.

    Tea Party – Political issue

    Nothing magic here. It’s simply people expressing their disagreement with current government direction, government policies. “Tea Parties” have been around since the beginning of time. The current one has gained significant traction only because a significant number of peoples are upset with current leadership. They’ll be around forever also.

    Real Estate Collapse – Capitalism issue

    Nothing magic here either. Capitalism and greed at it’s finest. Fine tune some regulations, let people know what the ground rules are, and move on.

    Environmental – Scientific / Technical issue

    First get the facts, then educate. Unfortunately politicians have turned an issue of science into a political, no…a religious issue. Most people would be willing to let the scientists do their job however the “religious zealots” are telling the people we must go back to the horse and buggy days. The people aren’t buying the dog food.

    Debt – personal issue

    EVERYONE knows we (individuals and government) can’t spend more than we make, it’s impossible. Unfortunately the government / politicians have turned a personal issue into a political issue. They’ve told us we can, and should spend more than we make. With half the nation’s people not paying any taxes, it’s natural for half the people to buy this dog food, even though they know future generations will suffer. Once everyone pays SOME level of tax, this issue will take care of itself. If we continue to “tax the rich” until they’re the only ones paying taxes we’ll continue to go deeper and deeper in debt..and quicken our plunge toward becoming a third world country.

    It’s not difficult, nor unpopular, to solve any of these. The vast majority of Americans know these issues are for the most part unrelated and they’re more than willing to do the “right” thing on each.

    The major reason they’re not being solved is left unmentioned in your column. It’s that our elected officials, our politicians aren’t interested in solving them. They’re more interested in driving their own agenda…which isn’t the people’s agenda. That’s why many will be voted out come Nov.

  2. Great column, Aaron – good food for thought in the last two paragraphs.

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