Then there’s safety. Coll pokes fun at Exxon for the company’s response to the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The author seems amused, for example, that meetings would begin with a “safety minute” involving discussions of emergency procedures.
But such steps were really driven by Exxon’s conviction that “a fanatical devotion to safety in complex operational units such as refineries could lead to greater profits because the discipline required to achieve exceptional safety goals would also lead to greater discipline in cost controls and operations,” as Coll puts it.
That approach seems to have worked. After Valdez, the company mostly avoided major mishaps. The one slip Coll cites became a major disaster only because a gas station owner failed to follow proscribed safety procedures. And that’s not to mention that safe employees require less time off and are more efficient, or that a company that avoids accidents also sidesteps lawsuits and lost time.
Coll concludes the book by highlighting the fundamental difference between, on one hand, a government and on the other a company that needs to survive in a market. In 1999, both Exxon and the federal government took in more than they spent. Then they went in opposite directions.
“In an era of terrorism, expeditionary wars, and upheaval abroad, coupled with tax cutting and reckless financial speculation at home, one navigated confidently, while the other foundered,” he writes. By 2011, when credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the U.S. government, “the net cash flow of the United States--receipts minus expenditures--was approximately negative $5.7 trillion. ExxonMobil’s net cash flow from operations and asset sales during the same period was a positive $493 billion.”
If only we could bring some of that market discipline to bear on the government, we’d be better off.