One depressing aspect of the economic crisis is that public outrage has been channeled into symbolic displays of populist outrage against CEOs rather than into intelligent public action to prevent the recurrence of disasters. The response to the Deepwater Horizon spill fits the pattern. The outrage du jour is that BP CEO Tony Hayward has taken a break from overseeing efforts to contain an oil spill to take in a yacht race.
I fail to understand the controversy. Does anybody assert that Hayward needs to be working seven days a week, every week? I doubt his role is actually so indispensable. So then is the outrage that, in his free time, he is indulging in the sort of activity available only to very wealthy men? I also fail to see how the crisis should force Hayward to pretend not to be rich.
Nobody really wants to make the case that Hayward can never relax, or that he can't spend his own money as he sees fit when he does relax. So instead the "controversy" is that it creates an appearance of a controversy. It's a fully postmodern scandal. Here is every portion of the AP story on Hayward's yachting that comes close to explaining why this is a problem:
BP chief executive Tony Hayward, often criticized for being tone-deaf to U.S. concerns about the worst oil spill in American history, took time off Saturday to attend a glitzy yacht race off England's Isle of Wight. ...
That is likely to be a hard sell in Gulf states struggling to deal with the up to 120 million gallons of oil that have escaped from a blown-out undersea well. ...
British environmental groups immediately slammed Hayward's outing. Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace said Hayward was "rubbing salt into the wounds" of Gulf residents whose livelihoods have been wrecked by the disaster.
"Clearly it is incredibly insulting for him to be sailing in the Isle of Wight," he said.
Hugh Walding, the coordinator of the Isle of Wight Friends of the Earth, said Hayward's choice of venue was sure to arouse anger.
"I'm sure that this will be seen as yet another public relations disaster," Walding said.
All these phrases -- tone deaf, hard sell, public relations disaster -- are fundamentally a dodge. Nobody can make the case that Hayward has done anything wrong here, so instead they make the case that other people will believe that Hayward has done something wrong.