Douglas Rushkoff understands the bigger picture implications of how the Obama administration handles the BP oil spill. This, of course, relates to the problem of corporate personhood stemming from limited liability, and opens up space for us to think about alternative approaches to the firm in our society.
In the latest round of empty fist waving by Obama and apologetic posturing by BP, the President raised the issue that while BP has spent a few tens of millions on the cleanup effort and damages so far, the company’s annual dividend to shareholders is about $10.5 billion. The company is acting as if all its resources are being diverted to address this spill, when – financially anyway – this is clearly not the case. So as a way of changing the widespread perception that it is underspending on the crisis, BP suggested it might “suspend” – meaning pay later, not never – its quarterly dividend. A gesture of goodwill.
What a brilliant move. By suggesting they might suspend their dividend, BP initiated widespread panic about what would happen if that dividend were compromised in any real way. All of a sudden, business newspapers and cable channels begin calculating just what this means for shareholders – those people and institutions who park their money in an oil company and expect returns. How many pension funds have invested in BP? And how many retirees in England have made the oil a company a central part of their retirement portfolios, and are depending on these dividends to maintain their quality of life?
So now, instead of an transnational oil company against the American gulf fishermen, beach workers, and ocean itself, it’s the interests of presumably innocent British pensioners against American workers. We’re supposed to limit BP’s liability for wrecking our lives and our planet, because of the impact that appropriate penalties will have on those collecting dividends off the oil company’s crimes against us. This means bailing out the company by using government funds to pay for its spill.
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