Rolling blackouts and rising gasoline prices pose poltiical problems for President Bush: An essay by Huck Gutman published in The Taipei Times, Taiwan

"The US' Energy Woes"
   June 19, 2001

       No one has accused U.S. President George Bush, who likes short work days and long naps, of being overly energetic.  But just as the milestone of his first one hundred days in office has passed, a different sort of energy situation is about to engulf his Presidency.

       America is facing energy woes.  Last winter California, the nation’s most populous state, faced a number of rolling blackouts as electricity demand outpaced electricity supply.  Predictions are for increased brownout/blackout periods this summer, perhaps as high as fifteen hours a week in most households.  As California has been the trendsetter in so many other areas, so with electricity: rolling blackouts are now seen as a strong possibility in many of the nation’s geographic regions.

       This presents President Bush with a  very large problem.  Mr. Bush believes in the free market, which means even as evidence of price-gouging by electricity vendors is verified, he asserts that only competition can rein in spiraling energy prices.  (Rates in California have gone up by 50 percent, with further rate increases predicted.)  He has strong ties to energy companies, especially as many of the large profitable vendors come from his home state of Texas.  He – or at least his voluble Vice President, Mr. Dick Cheney, who has been making speeches on this very subject – does not believe that energy conservation can do anything to lessen demand.  He hates, he positively abhors, the idea of price controls.  So he seems stuck with the position that doing nothing to alleviate current hardships is the best course, and that even if electricity rates double and electricity becomes unavailable for hours a day, only building new power plants, new nuclear generation plants, and stringing huge amounts of new cable will solve the problem.

       Politicians learn to their dismay that ignoring the current problems of the electorate is a recipe for disaster.  Telling Californians to wait for three or four years, when their businesses shut down, their homes go without electricity, their jobs disappear and their lives are disrupted in all sots of ways, is not going to work.  Mr. Bush is in for big trouble.

       The political problem facing Mr. Bush deeper, worse, than just described.  For if Americans are dependent on electricity, they are passionate about automobiles.  Americans have a love affair with their cars: this is not news, as a sizeable percentage of global pollution and global warming is caused by this strange American passion, one that the citizenry of the U.S. will just not abandon.  For the past month gasoline prices have been zooming, up between sixteen and fifty percent, depending on region.  (Prices have gone up most in the Middle West.) There is every indication that the prices will rise considerably higher in the next several months, for Americans drive more in the summer.  When the weather turns good in cold regions, when workers have their holidays, the love affair between Americans and their cars blossoms profusely.  From going for a drive for the sheer pleasure of being on the road, to going to the lake or mountains for a picnic, to going on vacation, Americans pile into their cars and drive in huge numbers.

       Thus, while gasoline is in short supply, demand is about to escalate.  President Bush again has no solution, other than drilling for oil in the pristine wilderness in Alaska and saying, ‘Wait for four or five years until new refineries are built.’  But so dependent is the nation on gasoline, not only for personal pleasure but for the movement of goods (and the movement of workers to their jobs), that inflation in the price of gas will set off an inflationary spiral throughout the economy: driving a car will be more expensive, but so will taking a plane, buying food (most food is shipped long distances by truck), buying anything at all since all goods move from producer to buyer along gasoline-powered pathways.

       And with rising gasoline prices Mr. Bush really has a problem.  He is, after all, an “Oil President.’  His economic background, as was his father’s before him, is in Texas oil.  His friends are Texas oilmen.  His Vice-President was a major oil-exploration company executive before he was tapped to run on the Bush electoral ticket.  Their campaign was funded, to the extent of many millions of dollars, by oil money: over sixty million dollars flowed from the oil interests into Republican Party coffers in the last election.

       Can he ignore this oil background in order to serve the people’s interest?  Of course.  Will he?  Absolutely, positively, not.  There is no way the Oil President  will abandon his old buddies, his financial supporters, his connections, his own personal economic interests.

       Mr. Bush’s problem is, of course, that Americans do not want to pay higher prices for gasoline, especially when ‘higher’ means prices doubling, not just moving up by small fractions.  At the same time Americans know full well that Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney come from a Big Oil background.  It doesn’t take a very sophisticated analyst to tell that higher gasoline prices, while they may devastate most working Americans, are a boon to the oil industry. When their wallets and pocketbooks are emptied just to pay to gas up the family car, every voter will recognize that Mr. Bush is more concerned about his buddies in the oil industry than he is about the household budgets of American workers and their families.

       Electricity prices, gasoline prices, are in a major upward spiral yet Mr. Bush has no desire to find short term solutions.  There are some, such as federal planning of energy resource allocation, price controls, taxes on windfall profits, and energy conservation, which might bring immediate relief.  It seems increasingly likely that energy will be Mr. Bush’s first real test in office, and that, in the view of the American populace, he will fail that test.  The voting public, who will go to the polls in a year and a half for Congressional elections, will be reminded of his failure every time they pull into a gas station to fill their tank, and will confront that failure every time their lights, television, and air conditioning go off for several hours in a rolling blackout.

       Mr. Bush’s honeymoon with the American people is over.  If he does not become more personally energetic, shifting his attention from the oil and energy producers to the public they are supposed to serve, his Presidency will founder.

       It will be a long and difficult summer, not only to those who drive automobiles or expect their lights and appliances to work twenty-four hours a day,  but for the man in the White House.  His first real large test is upon him, and it looks like he is going to fail it – to fail it, as the young in America say, big time.