The More It Changes

Posted: Jul 10, 2001 12:00 AM
Alphonse Karr? Never heard of him? Why, everyone has heard of M. Karr, the 19th century French journalist, via his famous declaration, "Plus A change, plus c'est la m'me chose." Ah -- I see that's not enough. "The more it changes, the more it is the same." Does that help? Truer words, as another famous saying goes, have never been spoken. The more what changes? Just about everything -- for instance, economic experience. We think we've got certain principles down pat, in the manner of the Law of the Medes and the Persians, which altereth not. Then events rise to bite us -- the current clamor for energy price controls, for instance. The idea in Gov. Gray Davis' California is that -- oh, the eyes fog with nostalgia for bygone days -- energy prices rise suddenly and sharply because large oil companies are to blame, with their conspiratorial tactics. We heard it all the time in the 1970s: Energy prices bore no relationship to energy supplies or to the price incentives given energy companies as a means of stimulating drilling and production. It took us a while to catch on. Energy prices were high and energy supplies unreliable, not because energy companies were greedy, but rather, ironically, because energy was a price-controlled commodity too few wanted to produce. Natural gas prices were tightly regulated. There were other inhibitions on exploration and production, such as offshore drilling restrictions; there was embedded mistrust of oil companies' ability to export oil from Alaska without unsettling the caribou; there was the endless creation of federal hoops for jumping through by utilities eager to build nuclear plants. Politicians -- chiefly of the Democratic variety -- encouraged these viewpoints. What they said they wanted was conservation and the development of creative new technologies like wood stoves and windmills. One of those politicians was Ted Kennedy. Oh, my. And plus A change, because here we are again, listening to the same silly arguments about how energy shortages and high prices (even temporarily high prices, the reflection of shifting conditions in the marketplace) reflect energy companies' disposition to rob us all. You foresaw all this, M. Karr, n'est ce pas? It's here for sure. The current energy debate savors of the one we had 25 years ago and thought we had transcended through the success of the marketplace, under President Reagan and the Republicans, at restoring equilibrium through deregulation. Again the Democrats want price controls. Again they want to close off Alaska's oil resources and keep those icky drilling rigs out of the Gulf of Mexico. Democratic energy policies could be called comic relief for the pain of blackouts and $2 gasoline save that nothing is funny about these policies. They are no funnier now than when Sen. Henry (Scoop) Jackson -- who knew better -- ranted at oil company presidents attempting to explain their needs, and Jimmy Carter proposed (and got) a "windfall profits" tax on oil: as if Jimmy Carter knew to the penny what was the fair price for oil. There was fun, 20 or 25 years ago, in calling attention to all this loopiness. But the most exotic zoos, stuffed with the wildest inhabitants, get tiresome: especially when the inhabitants wield political power. Ronald Reagan's election in 1980 ended the energy crisis almost tout de suite (as M. Karr would have said). See any such crisis now? What we see, in actuality, is particular weaknesses in the production and distribution chain: some of these, as in California, effected by the return of the regulatory spirit at the state and federal level. These weaknesses need addressing by marketplace means -- by more freedom for producers, not less. Yes, and with proper respect for the environment, so long as "respect" doesn't do double duty as a duck blind, covering political potshots. That's another thing that doesn't change: the bang-bang-bang of political pot-shotting. Alas, to coin another phrase, shotguns put no gas in the Honda Civic.