Posted by: Jeff | June 21, 2010

Sometimes You Need a Shakedown

Reihan Salam is sort of getting creamed in the blogosphere for expressing sympathy with Joe Barton’s claim that the Obama administration engaged in a “shakedown” of BP to create the $20 billion escrow fund. And rightly so, for all the reasons Adam Serwer and Daniel Larison lay out. (As I finish writing this, it appears Salam has largely backtracked.)

Now, Salam is not nearly so tone deaf as Barton. He has the good sense to link his argument against shakedowns to the truly powerless, such as “prisoners and single mothers” and kids getting beat up on the schoolyard and such, along with enormous multinational oil corporations. And, in fairness to Salam, he is correct insofar that BP has indeed become an extraordinarily despised entity, which has put it at something of a disadvantage to the government. And yes, we do have legal institutions designed to temper and check precisely the kind of collective emotions and rash actions that kind of widespread loathing can engender.

But — and someone correct me if I’m wrong here — I don’t believe that incidences of this kind of heavy-handed power dealing being brought down upon actual prisoners or single mothers or whatever has ever inspired Salam to write a column. It has to come down upon a well-known and insanely wealthy oil business before the “abstract” phenomena that so concerns him merits the attention of his pen. I think myself and others could be forgiven for taking this as an unfortunate example of conservatives’ tendency to reserve almost all of their empathy for those in positions of comfort, power and authority. And I think, along with Salam, we can all rest assured that the pastor-like gentleness (in Salam’s rendering) that Barton displayed towards BP has never been showered on any despised person or group who does not enjoy so firm a position in the halls of conservative power-worship. So my sympathy for Salam is distinctly limited.

Furthermore, the analogy to prisoners is particularly telling. Isn’t this sort of exchange between a person in power and a person out of power precisely what goes on when, for instance, the police extract information from a suspect by threatening them with harsher penalties if they don’t cooperate? Is that not a shakedown as well?

I point this out for two reasons. One, I would very much hope that, if we can establish that both the good capitalist oil business and the guy busted for selling drugs are being subjected to a “shakedown,” and that such an activity is inherently brutal and morally problematic, then perhaps conservatives can be convinced to expand their circle of empathy from the former subject to the latter as well. The tendency to see the police and everything they do as inherently virtuous is, to my mind, a very big problem in conservative culture.

Two, even if we were to agree that police interrogations are a morally tainted business, that does not necessarily mean they should not happen at all. Certain things, within reason, are both morally tainted and more or less necessary. Such is the way of the world. Sometimes, when a person or a business has done a great wrong and caused great damage, the only way to get them to right the situation is to threaten them with far worse consequences if they do not own up and meet their obligations. Sometimes, in other words, shakedowns are appropriate.

And if ever there was a case where that point applied, I’d think it would be the current godawful mess BP has gotten itself into.


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