Like millions of others, I was mildly offended when BP's Swedish Chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg insisted that he and his company care about "the small people." Americans bristled atthe term. It sounded demeaning, implying that we U.S.citizens are little and weak,not like'the big people' who run BP.
But as I thought about Svanberg's gaffe, I realized that his term for us Americansis spot on. We are'the small people.' Even though we numbermore than 300 million, and even though we have a federal agencytasked with makingbig oil companiesconduct their operations safely, we arethe onesbearing the pain ofdamage that grows dailyasoil continues to gush into the Gulf, out of control.We 'small people' are paying because the "big people'at BP used their might to make surethe Mining and Minerals Service did not interferewith BP's cheating on safetyor with its failure to prepare for a possible accident.
BP'sCEO Tony Haywardpromised thatBP would "make things right.' Butthe 'small people' of the Gulf coast know he can't. They know that the damage is too great, thattheir means of livelihoodfishing, shrimping, tourismat least for the foresseable future.The $20 billion President Obama wrung out of the company to compensate Gulf coast victimsis tiny, compared to thesufferingbeing endured by so many in the Gulf region.
WhileBP is losing lots of moneyin payments tovictims, in trying to clean up the disaster it has caused, and in plummeting stock pricesthe corporation's giant sizeprotects it from the kinds of costs we'small people' must pay formuchsmaller crimes.Any one of us 'small people' who kills another person faces life in prison or even execution. But "big people' who run corporations like BP never face execution. And prison sentences are almost as rare. Despite the 11 human deathsBP caused when the Gulf rig exploded,it is unlikely that those deaths will cost BP anything more than money.
Unfortunately, there is nothing unique about BP. The tragic deaths of 29 Massey coal miners in West Virginia recently, and the irresponsible behavior of giant financial institutions thatbrought us to the brink of Depression, were caused by thegreed of "big people,' unchecked by the federal agencies charged with their oversight.
Yes, Svanberg was right. We are "the small people.' And we'll remain small and weak, suffering what we must at the hands ofgiant corporations,for the foreseeable future.
But I do believe we can change the current great imbalance of power. We the people need to take our democracy back. We desperately need campaign finance reform, so that we can minimize the influence ofBig Corporate Money on Congress, on the White House, and on our regulatory agencies.