Energy Crisis: Brother, Can You Spare a Gallon?
By Norman Markowitz
As the Eisenhower administration prepared to take office in 1953, Adlai Stevenson, the unsuccessful Democratic candidate, said: "the New Dealers have been replaced by the car dealers." I thought of that today as I read the Republicans new "energy policy," or rather smoke and mirrors – dare we even dignify it by calling it propaganda -– aimed at saving their endangered congressional majorities in the coming elections.
First, the Republicans want what they call a "tax holiday" in the form of a $100 rebate check to every family. Actually, this would amount to two full tanks of gas for most of us with long daily commutes and no feasible public transportation alternatives.
The Republicans, for whom pro-corporate policies are a matter of faith, are obviously hoping that history will repeat itself. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration gave "tax cuts" for working families were offset by various regressive taxes, property, sales, and social security payroll taxes that took much more out of the checks of those families.
Many working people really didn’t catch on that the federal cut backs which accompanied the tax cuts created the increase in regressive federal, state, and local taxes, and sometimes accepted Republican propaganda blaming social programs, public employees and unions for a tax burden that forced them deeper into debt. The government also went much deeper into debt, as increases in military spending and corporate subsidies far outweighed public sector and social service cutbacks and added to lost revenues from tax cuts. This too was blamed on "tax and spend liberals" and "welfare."
The Republicans have controlled both houses of Congress since 1994 and have no "tax and spend liberals" to blame for the present crisis. The Republicans have invaded and occupied Afghanistan and Iraq and threaten to launch a war against Iran, two of whom are the world’s leading oil producers. Though rarely discussed in the mainstream media, these events have clearly contributed to the sharp rise in energy prices.
For this reason, it would be difficult for the Republicans to blame the present energy crisis on a "weak liberal foreign policy" the way Reagan blamed the energy crisis of the 1970s on the Carter administration’s perceived failure to flex US military muscle. Although Russian companies have profited from the price increases as an energy producer, the Republicans can’t (at least I doubt they can) see a Soviet plot to capture strategic oil routes and use their oil money to spread revolution.
Republicans pushed for and won deregulation of the energy industry, so they can’t trot out "supply side" economists to call for deregulation and privatization of energy resources the way the Reaganites did.
To counter massive popular criticism and the Democratic Party’s call for a "windfall profits tax" against the oil companies, which is a good short-term idea but one that Bush and the Republicans and their oil company backers will fight to the death, the Republicans resurrected their phony compassionate conservatism, expressing feigned concern for the working families who have to cut back on necessities to purchase gas. They have even suggested that alternative energy resources should be developed and – get a hold of yourself – charges of "price gouging" should be investigated, despite the fact they have opposed such a measure just months ago.
Along with their opposition to any windfall profits tax, the Republicans remain true to their most sacred beliefs when they continue to push for an Arctic drilling program that would destroy the Alaska Wild Life Preserve while providing massive subsidies and super-profits for oil companies. After all, it was Ronald Reagan who, expressing a strong distaste for all things environmental, said, once you’ve seen one Redwood, you’ve seen them all. For the GOP, that must go double for Alaska, which isn’t even part of the lower forty-eight.
First, no one should take the Republicans program seriously. The "rebate" concept is meaningless, unless it were to be a regular monthly check, something like "welfare checks" that the GOP has long seen as leading those who cash them to social purgatory. Their call for the development of alternative energy resources is hypocritical in the extreme. The GOP is big on ethanol since it enables them to subsidize some of their rural supporters, rather than solar power, which they continue to identify with radical elements of the 1960s counter-culture. In fact, Reagan abandoned work done on solar power, which poses the best long-term solution to energy needs, and other alternative energy sources at the beginning of the 1980s, even selling off publicly financed scientific work done in these areas to foreign governments.
The Bush administration has escalated the divestment in basic scientific research that the Reagan administration launched and the Clinton administration slowed down substantially. Who would trust an administration and a party that have undermined and suppressed important research on the effects of global warming, in large part because such research impedes the oil conglomerates, to pursue any serious long-term alternative energy policy?
As for trusting the Republicans and the Bush administration to investigate price gouging, which frankly is always built into any deregulated system, this would be like trusting bookmakers to investigate the fixing of horse races and other sporting events.
But what about the Democrats? While they have proposed a windfall profits tax, increased subsidies to low-income families for home heating costs, stiff penalties for price-gouging, and have repeated vague calls for developing alternatives and eliminate dependence of imported oil, they have yet to present a definitive, long-term national energy policy with concrete proposals that respond to widespread public demands for alternatives energy sources. All the Republicans learn from history is how to recycle and update the prejudices of the past, but the Democrats could learn something if they tried to think outside of the box they have put themselves into. By publicizing a national energy program with serious re-regulation, price and production planning and a real public sector, activists can help the Democrats put the heat on the Republicans and the Bush administration.
Roosevelt’s New Deal government advocated a National Energy Policy, established the publicly owned Tennessee Valley Authority to generate hydro-electric power at low cost, and had plans for large regional public energy projects on the TVA model. Unfortunately, Cold War politics and priorities eventually killed it. Even the Truman administration, which launched the Cold War, fought unsuccessfully to keep states, particularly Louisiana and California, from gaining control of offshore oil resources in order to protect those resources from being handed over to unplanned and unchecked oil company exploitation.
Progressive Democrats also campaigned unsuccessfully against the infamous Oil Depletion Allowance, a "tax break" that allows oil companies to write off the value of the oil that they use up, giving them an incentive to use more and more fossil fuels rather than either developing any conservation program or any alternative energy program. Democrats in the 1950s and 1960s did successfully stop Republican attempts to sell off public energy resources to private companies. Progressives also resisted until the end of the 1970s right-wing drives to "deregulate" energy production and also made important environmental advances in taking leaded gasoline off the market and compelling companies to provide energy use information to consumers and, where possible, encourage the purchase of energy efficient products.
Re-regulation, if it were in the hands of those committed to a pro-labor, pro-environment progressive policy, would enable the federal government to begin to actually accomplish what the Republicans have been hypocritically talking about – the development of alternative energy sources and the reduction of profiteering and price gouging.
The oil companies, whose profits are both obvious and obscene, could be compelled to put a large part of these profits into a Public Transportation Trust to fund the development and expansion of bus, rail, and other multi-passenger vehicles to provide public transportation alternatives for the huge number of workers in Urban-Suburban regions who daily drive to work. This would also significantly reduce consumption.
Establishing a "peacetime military budget" – something in the reasonable vicinity of $200 billion – would also permit the government to promote scientific research and public programs that would encourage greater energy efficiency in both work places and homes, rather than the current nonsense of encouraging families to turn down their thermostat in the winter.
The medium-term effects of such policies would also see a real drop in dependence on crude oil and the possibility of working with other developed and developing countries through the United Nations on a global energy policy.
These are the issues that progressives should raise as the Bush administration and the Republicans make noises to appease the electorate and scrounge around for programs to contain the price of gas until the elections are over. They are the issues that trade unionists, environmental activists, and peace activists should be raising most of all, since they are all inter-related to establishing an economy which produces quality employment opportunities, an environment that gives citizens more than the right to fight traffic jams on the way to shopping malls, and a foreign policy that rejects completely what has most characterized it in recent years, the conquest and control overseas oil resources.
--Norman Markowitz is a contributing editor of Political Affairs and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org