Do “Something”–But What?–About Gas Prices

I’ve now heard or read 150 versions of this question: “Why doesn’t Washington Do Something about the economy?” Sometimes it comes with slight variations, like “voters are demanding that Washington do something about the economy” and “why are they bloviating about patriotism and flag pins instead of doing something about the economy?” and “If they don’t do something about the economy, we’re going down the tubes.”

More recently, the favored variation has to do with gas prices. This morning I heard  a radio host say to a Congressional  reporter, “Are they going to do anything about gas prices?”  And as we head toward Election Day, these questions are getting wrapped into that Familiar Litany we’ll hear a thousand times: “With the economy in a tailspin and record gas prices producing pain at the pump, voters are looking to Washington for help.”

The comforting assumption behind these questions, of course, is that “they” have any number of tried and true methods for “fixing” the economy and bringing down gas prices by next Thursday, so doggone it, tell those lardheads to stop fiddling, open the tool box, and get out the #2 socket wrench that will fix things!

Even among the chattering media class, which includes a number of old Washington hands who ought to know better, these litanies get tossed back and forth with the tacit suggestion that short-term fixes exist, if these cretins would just get up and act.

I would ask this: Are we sure the short-term fixes exist? What power exactly does Congress have to affect gas prices significantly in a month or three or six?

The ballyhooed McCain/Clinton “gas tax holiday” would have saved a nickle or so a gallon, or approximately 50 cents on my last fill-up, and the resulting drop in revenues would have meant delays in highway repair and layoffs for many state highway workers.

Outlaw speculation on energy stocks?  This plays into the comforting line spread by  some pols that if we just knocked these greedy speculators into line, prices would drop to $1 a gallon next week. (I don’t know if the pols really believe this or if they’re just giving “the folks” a convenient whipping-boy.)

Even a massive windfall profits tax on the fat-cat oil companies, assuming it got past the filibusters and veto,  wouldn’t bring any quick relief. And by the way, as much as their “obscene profits” do look obscene, the oilcos have a point: Oil exploration is unbelievably expensive, with all kinds of failures and accidents,  and if we’re going to use the stuff, which we are for years to come, someone’s got to go get it. The system is the system.

Stringent, serious conservation? I think that’s good in itself, having never heard a good argument for waste, but let’s not kid ourselves. If everyone in the U. S. agreed to eliminate one day of driving a week, prices would drop some but they will never go back to $1.50 a gallon, which we now see were the good old days.

Why? China and India. These burgeoning industrial giants, dwarfing our population, will keep sucking the oil no matter what we do. Twenty years ago we were the Big Customer for oil. Now we’ve got company, and that means high prices no matter what Obama promises to do after his election. The Age of Cheap Energy is over.

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