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Calling the Barrel Black

02.17.2006 | POLITICS

While much of the country worked up a lather over Bode Miller's strange desire to wind up like Sonny Bono, some of us are still wincing from George W. Bush's bizarre admonition during the State of the Union address that we are addicted to oil. You've got a point there, Mr. President. One small problem, though -- you are the pusher. Actually, you are not just a pusher. You are a kingpin. RICO laws apply to you. You are the Manuel Noriega of oil. If we can keep collateral damage under 2,000 civilians this time, let's send the marines into Crawford.

This was like Larry Flynt warning us about porn. Or Donald Trump cautioning us about wasting money on the slots. It was cruder than Jenna and Barbara's routine at the '04 Republican National Convention. It was the pump calling the barrel black. It was a hybrid between truth and disingenuousness. It was a surreal moment, exceeding even the surrealness of the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents' dinner, where GW did a little sketch about looking for WMDs behind a curtain in the Oval Office. Coming soon to a press conference near you: the President warns about federal budget deficits, trade deficits, nepotistic agency appointments, violating the Geneva Convention, and domestic wiretapping outside of FISA.

If Bush was going to sound like a pharmaceutical company, he could at least have issued the full disclaimer. May cause global warming. May cause windfall multinational corporate profits coupled with local economic hardship. May lead to military occupation. Supplement with other sources of energy. May stunt alternative technologies if subsidized. If signs of recession persist, see your Secretary of Energy at once. At bare minimum, Bush could have played it like a tobacco giant. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have determined that imported oil may be detrimental to national health. May cause preemptive strikes.

At least when Dwight D. Eisenhower warned about the dangers of the military-industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address, he was getting out. GW was making a point with his right hand and killing caribou with his left. Either he likes to throw in at least one non-sequitur per State of the Union address -- in 2004 it was steroids in sports -- or he's drinking again. Then again, George W. Bush is the Ron Burgundy of world politics. Did Karl Rove get a decent look at the addiction comments before they hit the teleprompter, or was GW sabotaged by Howard Dean like Will Ferrell was sandbagged by Christina Applegate in Anchorman?

Whatever the case, the real profit from Exxon Mobil's $371 billion gross revenue last year was shuffled around with speed, savvy, and deception that would make Jack Abramoff green with envy. These weren't your run-of-the-mill windfall profits. They were earned the old-fashioned way -- through collusion. On any given day, a price fix is only a conference call away. It's the next best thing to being there. The industry's laundered stash could sink a Cayman Island or two and, if left long enough to petrify, could itself produce new wells. Even though it's a record on the books, Exxon Mobil's $36 billion reported profit in 2005 can be believed like we believed John Gotti was a plumber.

In fact, before he started shooting his friends, the clandestine energy task force Dick Cheney held with petroleum industry honchos back in 2001 was a lot like the 1957 mob gathering in Apalachin, New York. The five families were there: Exxon Mobil, Conoco, Shell, BP, and Chevron. But the Cheney gang had it better. Ken Lay was never chased through the Rose Garden by the FBI. The White House still won't release the transcript, which is a courtesy they never got at the Bergin Hunt and Fish Club.

If only we could invent a perpetual motion machine that rivaled the government-oil industry rig. The energy bill of '05 put the government's money where the pump is. A $5 billion subsidy to big oil was like giving the Yankees Barry Bonds to DH.

The rest of what we need to know about American energy policy is conveyed by the story of the Kennedys and Kerrys quashing the turbines off of Nantucket. NIMBY means not in my buddy's yacht club. Forget the 300,000 homes that would have drawn energy from the wind-powered turbines. It's hard to enjoy martinis, mahjong, and molesting your babysitter when there is a grayish, two-degree blip on the horizon.

Make no mistake about it -- we are being prepped for four dollars a gallon. Softened up like veal on hormones. Each wave of price hikes is an opportunistic test-marketing program that pays for itself billions of times over. No need to speculate on the inelasticity of demand when you can try out a wide variety of price points and count how many sheep go along for the ride. So far, the demand for crude oil in the US is about as elastic as the demand for oxygen. And just when there is the faintest hint of a meaningful outcry from the docile American commuter, a price drop of a few cents serves as sedative until the next crisis can be exploited or orchestrated.

We are saps, and Exxon Mobil knows it. Shell knows it. The Saudis know it. We have lost the ability, creativity, and will to rebel. Our nation was started by a bunch of rebels. Today, our idea of rebellion is to pay homage to our founders with a few cliches and go back to watching Party at the Palms on E! But to paraphrase that great American philosopher Ralph Kiner, if the founding fathers were alive today, they'd be rolling over in their graves. The Adamses, Franklins, and Jeffersons want nothing to do with us. When approached at family reunions, they explain that they are related to us by marriage only. If they were leading the opposition, they would be organizing a petroleum-based Boston Tea Party that would make the Valdez look like a high school chem lab experiment.

Right-wing hatchet men like Sean Hannity helped marginalize Michael Moore for poor grooming and a little hyperbole. But the blood-for-oil equation is the emperor-has-no-clothes syndrome of our time. We ought to start getting over it immediately and clear the air. There is nothing unpatriotic about the plain truth. Decades from now, when Ann Coulter is zonked out on Medicaid-funded Dexedrine in a government-sponsored assisted living facility, we will casually discuss the blood-for-oil trade-off the way today we discuss atomic weapons testing in the Nevada Desert back in the 50s.

Addicted? You bet we are. We could start to break the addiction right now. But of course, that would mean withdrawal.

About the Author
Rich Herschlag is the author of a new book, Before the Glory: 20 Baseball Heroes Talk About Growing Up and Turning Hard Times Into Home Runs (HCI, 2007). His other books include Lay Low and Don't Make the Big Mistake (Simon & Schuster, 1997) and Women Are From Manhattan, Men Are From Brooklyn (Black Maverick, 2002).

Also an engineer, he runs a consulting business, Turnkey Structural, that specializes in the rehabilitation of residential and commercial buildings. Also a radio commentator, he can be visited at

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