The Obama administration figures that it has read the national mood well. This therapeutic generation of Americans loves to talk and worry about problems and then assumes that either someone else will solve them or they will go away on their own. And why not, since we have had periodic "energy crises" since 1974, have run budget deficits in most years since World War II, and have been warned about a looming Social Security meltdown for the last decade -- and yet remain wealthy and affluent.
But now gasoline costs more than $4 a gallon in many places in California, and averages more than $3.50 nationwide. In response, the Obama administration is reportedly considering tapping into the nation's Strategic Petroleum Reserve to increase supplies and drive down high prices brought on by a recovering world economy and unrest in the oil-rich Middle East.
Yet the reserve depot was not designed to alleviate periodic gas-price spikes, but to ensure our very survival during a global catastrophe that might result in a cutoff of most petroleum imports from overseas. There are now more than 700 million barrels of stored oil in the reserve. In times of near-Armageddon, even that huge supply would provide for all of the nation's oil needs for only a single month. It would make up for all imported oil cutoffs for only two months.
So how is it wise to tap this critical but finite reserve -- especially when the current administration had prohibited new oil and gas production in large parts of the Gulf of Mexico and the western United States? The administration certainly will not reconsider new drilling in oil-rich areas in Alaska or elsewhere off the American coasts. The message to Americans seems to be that it is OK to consume old oil stockpiled by previous generations (the reserve was begun in 1975), but quite wrong to drill for new oil to be used by the present generation.
This same self-centered approach characterizes the federal budget. The Obama administration appointed a national debt commission -- only to ignore so far its recommendations because they're seen as too painful. But note that the commission did not call for a balanced budget for years to come. It suggested that only after 26 more years of massive federal borrowing would we be able to ensure at last Social Security's long-term financial health.
The president often expresses concern over the escalating debt, but then he increased annual borrowing this year, leading to a record $1.6 trillion annual deficit. He senses that Americans can neither sustain the present borrowing nor endure the necessary cuts in federal spending, so in response, the mere promise of future frugality seems to excuse even greater present profligacy.