“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana ,1905.
Haven’t I seen this movie before? The price of crude oil shoots up, gasoline prices soar, newspapers dust off ancient clichés (“pain at the pump,” anyone?), motorists squawk, politicians posture and all of America unites in the search for scapegoats.
It’s the fault of the greedy, conspiratorial oil companies! It’s all because of billionaire speculators cashing in on our misery! It’s because caribou-hugging environmentalists stopped the noble, public-spirited oil companies from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve! It’s because George W. Bush (in fact, every bad thing in the world is his fault) refused to support a rational energy policy! It’s because Ford and GM forced us to buy giant, gas-guzzling SUVs and pickups! It’s because the wicked, greedy oil producing countries run by tyrants like Chavez and Ahmadinejad have conspired to run up the price!
For those of us who were around during the oil “crises” of the 1970s and the 1980s, it’s all very familiar. Same script, different actors.
Then, as now, oil company executives were summoned before an indignant Congress and accused of manipulative and deceitful behavior, of pocketing tens of billions of dollars in windfall profits at the expense of honest, hardworking Americans. Then, as now, conspiracy theories abounded. Then, as now, theories of “peak oil” gained currency, as experts predicted that crude production had begun its long, inexorable decline.
And then, as now, few analysts believed that prices would fall.
That, of course, is what happened. Economics 101 triumphs again!
But this time it’s different, according to the pundits. Demand for energy is soaring because of burgeoning demand from China and India, and new supplies are years from coming online because of industry underinvestment. Political turmoil in producer countries such a Nigeria, Venezuela and Iraq also has inhibited supply growth.
All true — and it doesn’t make any difference.
The demand for petroleum products is not inelastic — as prices rise, demand will fall.
Airlines will reduce flights, motorists will drive less and businesses will find creative ways to reduce the impact of energy prices on their bottom lines. And we, as individuals, will factor in energy costs as we decide where to live, what car to drive and where we vacation.
That said, there are elements of the current run-up that reflect our own economic policies, not world demand. Thanks in part to the massive deficits incurred as our leaders waged two wars, reduced taxes and added the exorbitantly priced prescription drug benefit to Medicare, the dollar’s value declined against other currencies.
From May 2005 to the present, the Euro has gained 30 percent against the dollar. Since world crude prices are expressed in dollars, increases disproportionately affect American consumers.
And our de facto energy policy is to neither increase supply nor reduce demand — a nice illustration of national schizophrenia.
So what should we do? I’d vote for doing nothing. Meanwhile, we can ignore history and amuse ourselves with yesterday’s conspiracy theories.
In the interim, here are a couple of political predictions.
It seems fairly certain that Hillary Clinton will not be the Democratic nominee. If not Hillary, then who will be the first woman president?
As many have noted, it’s difficult for a woman candidate to communicate both toughness and compassion. If a man has a family (as has every president during the last century), he passes the compassion test and can spend his time being a manly man. But for a woman, it’s much more difficult.
Compassion might signal weakness and toughness brings the “B” word, and its synonyms (“shrill,” “aggressive,” “vindictive,” “angry”) instead of the signifiers applied to men (“authoritative,” “no-nonsense,” “impressive,” “masterful”).
How do women overcome this longstanding bias? Just as men always have — by military service. Of our last 10 presidents, nine were veterans, with Bill Clinton the only exception.
That avenue used to be closed to women, but no longer. Women serve and command in Afghanistan and Iraq — and I wouldn’t be surprised to see someone we’ve never heard of, like Navy Cmdr. Erika Sauer, who commands the U.S. provincial reconstruction team in Afghanistan’s Bamiyan province, suddenly vault into prominence. There are thousands of such women today — and the first woman president may well come from their ranks.
We don’t know which one, obviously, but who had heard of Barack Obama five years ago?
And speaking of Barack — he’ll choose Virginia Sen. Jim Webb as his running mate. Webb is a Vietnam veteran, served as Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan, his son currently serves in Iraq and he gives Obama what the Illinois senator lacks — military credibility.
And it helps that Webb is certifiably bipartisan.
Stay at home, put your feet up, grab the remote and follow the race for the presidency. It’s just like American Idol — except the two finalists aren’t named David and neither of ’em can sing.
But think of the gas you’ll save.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.