Buzz words are a poor way to make policy, but they surely
shape (and misshape) our political culture, especially at a time when the
President of the United States relies on cue cards to explain himself. To what
extent George W. Bush understands what he is saying remains unclear. But the
more he repeats certain favorite phrases, the more difficult it is to
understand what he really means.
The most recent example of this cognitive dissonance is the
distorted public discourse about the alleged energy crisis-and the
administration’s proposals to guide us past its perils. Resolving the confusion
requires a brief guide to the hidden meaning of White House rhetoric about
energy and related topics.
For instance, when Mr. Bush and his energy czar, Vice
President Dick Cheney, praise the efficacy of “the free market,” they aren’t
using that term in its classical sense. Traditionally, a free market means a
system free of manipulation by monopolies, oligopolies and cartels. But there
is nothing that resembles a free market in the U.S. energy sector. What we have
instead is deregulation, a system which disables government intervention
without enforcing competition. Such is the lesson that Californians are
gradually learning in their present distress.
So in Bushspeak, a “free
market” in energy is merely a situation which frees his administration’s
friends at Enron, Exxon and El Paso from both government regulation and
inconvenient competition, permitting them to extract maximum revenues by
Which leads to a related misconception involving the
schoolbook cliché of “supply and demand.” In normal usage, this phrase implies
the balance achieved by a perfectly operating market. But again, since there
are no such markets, the concept of supply and demand has taken on a more
sinister inflection. This is so even-or perhaps especially-when it is uttered
by the nation’s leaders.
The best encapsulation of current conditions regarding
supply and demand is the same one offered decades ago, during an actual energy
crisis, by the brilliant Robert Klein. (Comedians are far better equipped than
economists or politicians to describe the realities of the energy industry.)
“We’ve got all the supply ,” said Mr.
Klein, mimicking an oil company executive, “so we can demand whatever the fuck we want.”
Wishing to maintain that
benign equation, Messrs. Bush and Cheney often reiterate their commitment to
“limited government.” But coming from their lips, that phrase isn’t meant to
suggest any kooky libertarian ideal. They only mean to limit government
assistance to consumers, not corporations. As conservative and liberal
economists alike have pointed out, the administration’s energy proposals
consist almost entirely of welfare schemes and special privileges-provided by
government-to oil, gas, electricity and coal producers who make large campaign
(Even Mr. Bush’s beloved tax cut turns out to be, according
to his own description, a transfer payment from the Treasury, passed briefly
through the pockets of consumers, and finally paid into the registers of the
petroleum and utility industries. There are occasions when government can lend
a helping hand, after all.)
Related to limited
government is another phrase which may prove misleading: “state’s rights.” In
modern Republican parlance, as adopted from the old Dixiecrats, states’ rights
denotes freedom from interference by pointy-headed Washington bureaucrats. It
is something Republicans always favor (except when counting ballots in
Florida). But under the Bush energy plan, the only right state authorities will
have is the right to get out of the way when a corporate entity decides to
construct a nuclear power plant, dig a coal mine or string up a transmission
line. If they don’t move quickly enough, the pointy-headed Washington
bureaucrats working for Mr. Cheney will give them a hard shove.
Another favorite phrase around the Bush White House is
“personal responsibility,” but neither should that be taken too literally.
Certainly middle-class families are personally responsible for paying higher
gas and electricity costs. Caribou, seal and other species are personally
responsible for avoiding extinction in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Everyone is personally responsible for the consequences they may suffer in a
nuclear reactor accident.
But there are exceptions to that bracing rule, such as the
owners of nuclear reactors that release radiation or melt down. Their
responsibility, personal and corporate, will be quite limited under the Bush
energy plan. And of course, energy executives are emphatically not responsible
for the destruction wreaked while drilling, pumping, mining or transporting
This leads us to “environmental protection,” a term formerly
understood to mean the solution to enduring national ills caused by air,
and soil pollution. For a regime seeking to unleash the energy corporations to
drill, spill and spew at will, environmental protection is not a solution but a
This vexing problem will, in turn, be solved by the “free
market” and “limited government.” See above.