Contrary to nearly all received wisdom in Washington, not to mention the rhetoric of the presumptive nominees of both major parties, the scariest moments in American politics are often its most bipartisan. Some would say this was demonstrated in the wake of 9/11, when all those allegedly terrible national security laws were enacted by both parties, or in the run-up to war, when Democrats and Republicans united to topple Saddam Hussein. But I find it is most true when Washington takes a populist turn, which it is doing now with pugnacious stupidity, attacking that classic populist boogeyman: the "oil speculator."
Sen. John McCain has declared the profits of American oil companies "obscene" and wants to hunt down "speculators" with congressional investigations. Sen. Barack Obama also sees "speculation" as the culprit behind our energy woes. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) blames Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street star chambers. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi warns that "we are putting oil speculators on notice." Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid vows to "end speculation on the oil markets." Even former House Speaker Newt Gingrich - who actually knows how markets work and is better at explaining them than any other politician today - says we have to "punish the speculators" for "betting against America."
Et tu, Newt?
Is trying to anticipate the correct price of a commodity now un-American - an act the United States government should seek to punish?
It seems that whenever things go bad and government is largely to blame, politicians look for villains other than themselves.
In 1892, the Populist Party platform warned of "a vast conspiracy against mankind" run by gold bugs, bankers and, yes, "speculators." American populists joined the fascists and socialists of Europe in calling for the heads of those who produced nothing while making vast sums from moving numbers around. The German Workers Party platform promised in 1920 to abolish "incomes unearned by work."
Intellectuals, too, have always had contempt for the men who made money on that bourgeois horror, the market. "His name was George F. Babbitt," wrote left-wing novelist Sinclair Lewis. "He was 46 years old now, in April 1920, and he made nothing in particular, neither butter nor shoes nor poetry, but he was nimble in the calling of selling houses for more than people could afford to pay."