Bush’s Buzz Words Need an Interpreter

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

limiting supply.

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

their products.

This leads us to “environmental protection,” a term formerly

understood to mean the solution to enduring national ills caused by air, water

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. Bush’s Buzz Words Need an Interpreter