Take That, Big Oil!

Jonah Goldberg

5/9/2008 12:01:00 AM - Jonah Goldberg

Imagine this. You've built the better mousetrap. (Because lasers and pneumatic tubes are cool, let's imagine it uses them.) You've persevered through years of trial and error in your garage, enduring sleepless nights, the mockery of friends, the eye-rolling of family and the non-lethal laser wounds to the family cat. But it was all worth it. You take your invention and, with your last few pennies, manage to bring it to market. It's a smash hit. It starts flying off shelves. You earn back the investment in raw materials and maybe something close to compensation for your time. Now you're ready for the big payoff. There's just one thing left to do: make an appointment with the regional Reasonable Profits Board to find out how much of your windfall is reasonable for you to keep.

Picked by Congress nominally for their expertise in analyzing the mousetrap industry but actually for their vampiric lust for entrepreneurial blood, members of the Reasonable Profits Board will determine how much of your already-taxed profits cross the "rational threshold."

Now that's the American dream!

What this would mean for Mousetrap 2.0 may not be a big concern for members of the board, but odds are you'll start to feel like you're working for them.

Replace "Mousetrap" with "oil," and you have a good idea of how some in Congress want to bring the oil industry to heel. Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa, is offering his "Consumer Reasonable Energy Price Protection Act," which would make oil companies supplicants of a Reasonable Profits Board. Senate Democrats, led by Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid, proposed their 25 percent windfall profits tax this week, while Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Alpha Centauri, has been calling for a 100 percent windfall profits tax rate for some time. Hillary Clinton is barnstorming the country talking about a windfall profits tax that will not only stick it to the corporate fat cats but will "pay" for a gas tax holiday.

"Windfall," of course, is just another word for "undeserved," which is why windfall profits are defined as the profits earned by someone other than you. If we were honest with the people having their profits yanked away, we'd call it the "well-earned and richly deserved profits tax."

Now hold on a second, cry the unreasonable-profit confiscators. That analogy is bogus. ExxonMobil isn't some garage-workshop Horatio Alger. ExxonMobil is a cold and impersonal multinational corporation!

To which I say: Exactly!

So why are Democrats keen on treating oil companies like they're comic-book villains and the windfall profits tax is just a well-deserved enema that will teach Big Oil to pay its fair share.

In 1977, when Jimmy Carter proposed the first windfall profits tax, he said through those enormous teeth, we "will ask private companies to sacrifice just as private citizens do." But corporations aren't normal citizens.

If you tell oil companies that they won't be able to keep their profits past a certain point, you know what they'll do? They'll make money right up until that point and then they'll stop. Unlike the guy building the better mousetrap, oil companies aren't in it for the glory, they're in it for the money. No oilman will go home hungry and wake up like Scrooge on Christmas morning, having repented because of a windfall profits tax.

Now, there will be plenty of punishment doled out, more than at a Belgian S&M club during recess at the European Parliament. But the crack of the windfall whip will land in unintended places. "Corporate sacrifice" means sacrificing share value, jobs and, most of all, reinvestment.

So people dependent on pension funds - union workers, government employees and the like - will be asked to sacrifice some of their retirement income. Jobs dependent on oil and gas extraction would be cut. And, as Schumer explains, money that would otherwise be invested in exploration and improved efficiency will instead be diverted to "alternative" energies that politicians (like Schumer) think are better investments.

No wonder Schumer's so cocky, given the boffo success of Washington's "investment" in ethanol, which costs more energy to produce than it provides, creates more greenhouse gasses than oil does, contributes to deforestation and is fueling the starvation of millions around the globe.

Meanwhile, less investment in exploration and efficiency will cause pump prices to rise (less supply = higher prices) and, as in the 1980s, cause us to rely on more foreign oil.

But, by all means, let's do it, because Big Oil is bad and someone - or everyone - has to pay for it.