Running on empty on gas prices

Posted: May 05, 2006 12:05 AM

I'd planned on ignoring the inferno of idiocy raging in the nation's capital over gas prices, but it's looking like an eternal flame.

First came the Democrats. For more than a decade their leading lights have extolled higher gas taxes, and hence higher gas prices, to pay for everything from school roofs to the development of alternative energy sources that would usher in the economic Shangri-La of "energy independence" - whatever that is. "Look how enlightened Europe is! Gas prices there are two or three times ours," they'd holler. In 1993, when the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House and the economy was believed to be in much worse shape, Bill Clinton, Al Gore and the rest of the Democratic leadership pushed gas taxes as the solution to our woes. Now even Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) - who voted for gas tax hikes in 1982, 1990 and 1993 - believes that "high gas prices are going to be the final nail in the GOP's coffin this election year." So the Democrats want to repeal federal gas taxes in order to bring the price down at the pump. They say the repeal would only be temporary. No kidding!

Instead of forming a bucket brigade to put out this bonfire of buffoonery - as is their historical obligation and divine writ - Republican leaders threw their own rhetorical gasoline. The GOP leadership called for the 12th investigation since 1979 into allegations of "price fixing" and "collusion" by American oil companies. These investigations have all concluded much the same thing: Market forces determine the price, not some cabal of tuxedo-wearing fat cats.

At a time when (a) the second-largest oil producer in the world - Iran - is engulfed in nuclear messianic nationalism; (b) Iraq is, shall we say, a somewhat unstable oil producer; (c) we have few oil refineries, and many of them are undergoing maintenance that was postponed because of Hurricane Katrina; and (d) China's economy grew at an oil-sucking 10 percent in the first quarter while our own grew at an astounding 4.8 percent, the brain trust in Washington is stunned, stunned, that gas prices are going up. It must be a conspiracy!

No doubt we can soon expect a major investigation into the disturbing reports that bears are using our woodlands as a toilet.

All of this brings to mind T.S. Eliot's observation that no causes are truly lost because no causes are ever truly won. Although poverty is the natural human condition whose only proven remedy is the market, whenever enough voters get mad at the market, politicians can be counted on to play up popular paranoia about powerful "unseen forces" exploiting ordinary folk.

Why, this week, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) even conjured the specter of those old devils, the "robber barons." "Sadly," she declared with barely suppressed glee, "we are now living in a new era of robber barons." Pelosi, who is more of a student of polls and left-wing blogs than history, probably doesn't much care that the modern stereotype of the robber baron as rapacious economic predator is more a product of the collectivist spirit of the New Deal than of the 19th century. "The Robber Barons," an error-filled 1934 tract written by a socialist named Matthew Josephson, was intended to pump up Depression-plagued readers with bile about "economic royalists" blocking social progress. Josephson was inspired by Honore de Balzac's witticism that "behind every great fortune lies a great crime." The statist playbook, it seems, is never out of print.

But we should not blame Democrats too much for their opportunism, cynicism and populism. As the party out of power, they are expected to seize on GOP weaknesses like jackals upon a wounded fawn. And their party is dedicated to the proposition that the state should always meddle when it feels it can do "good," regardless of what it did last year or even yesterday.

It is the congressional GOP that should be booed and shamed from the public square for the harlot it has become. Before the pyre of pandering even ended, the Republicans launched their fire sale, offering to sell off their remaindered principles at bargain basement prices. It was almost like they were paying voters to take their intellectual integrity off their hands. ("We're practically giving it away!")

They even tried to proposition voters with a $100 bribe to stop whining about "obscene" gas prices, rather than point out the real obscenity: overregulation that has kept American oil in the ground and prevented any new refineries or nuclear power plants from being built in 30 years. The $100 gimmick died from terminal boneheadedness, and even the House majority leader conceded, in an all-too-brief flash of sanity, that it was "stupid" and "insulting" to voters.

If this is what we can expect from congressional Republicans during a booming economy, heaven help us when the next recession comes.

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