Thursday, April 27, 2006

A Gas Attack

Nonpartisanship lives. For example, both Democrats and the Republicans are supporting investigations into price gouging at the pump. Even Bush, who is an oilman himself, found it impossible to resist the urge to deflect criticism onto the traditional villains. Just as every candidate, of every party, ideology, and hairdo, eventually calls for an end to government waste as an answer to the deficit, they all automatically blame market crises on unscrupulous manipulators—the term used to be “malefactors of great wealth”—as if unnamed sheiks and Texans had suddenly decided to cut off the spigot to run up prices. Now it’s not that the aforementioned sheiks and Texans don’t bear considerable responsibility for the current energy problem. They do. The trouble is that the relevant bad behavior isn’t price fixing in the present. Chuck Schumer and Barbara Boxer understand this fact as well as any economist—it’s not exactly a nuance—but they can’t resist the political advantage of rounding up the usual suspects. The trick is to get the upper hand without actually putting into effect the really stupid policies implied by the rhetoric—the very last thing we need, after all, is a cut in gasoline taxes at a time when government finances are shaky and there is an obvious need to allow higher prices to restrain demand.

Only the most gifted of politicians are able to persuade the general public with arguments that are relevant and valid. In the intervals between these miracles, it’s the bad arguments that win the debates. Insisting on straight talk and good logic is suicidal. Which is why I try not to be upset as I watch the Democrats winning through the use of tactics similar in kind, if not degree, to those used by the Republicans in the previous cycle. There is simply no reason to be surprised at a disconnect between the means and the ends, even if the perils of even a virtuous Machievellianism are obvious.

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