Buried within the blather...

I can't think of the last time an American politician has said something so utterly unconstructive — in large part because buried within the blather is a grain of truth.

If you read Drudge or troll right-wing websites (or do I repeat myself?) you've seen it by now: Barack Obama speaking at a rally in Oregon, quoted by Agence France Presse, and remarkably, by no one else who covered the rally.  "We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our
homes on 72 degrees at all times … and then just expect that other
countries are going to say OK," he said. "That's not leadership. That's not going to happen," he added.

The uncomfortable implication is pretty obvious: It's within Washington's purview — or maybe even the UN's — to regulate the kind of vehicles we drive, the amount of food we eat, and where we set our thermostats.  Right-wingers are justifiably outraged.  But beneath that outrage is an unjustifiable, unstated assumption: That cheap energy is some sort of American birthright. 

The fact that the lifestyle afforded us by cheap energy is to a large degree an accident of history — made possible by plentiful American oil for the first seven decades of the 20th Century coupled with the fact the United States was the only major economy not hollowed out by World War II — well, that's something the right wingers just don't want to hear.  $126 oil?  Must be those greedy Ay-rabs.  (Or if you're a Bill O'Reilly brand of right-winger, you'll gladly join in bashing Big Oil, too.)  But in a right-winger's world, it can't possibly be the laws of supply and demand at work.  Somebody's pulling levers somewhere.

To the extent a free market exists in energy (admittedly limited), the free market as expressed through the price system will dictate whether Americans give up their SUVs for compacts, adjust their diets, or turn down their thermostats in the winter.  And to some small degree, this is already happening.  Call it Peak Oil, call it a supply-demand imbalance, call it whatever you want… but the immutable laws of supply and demand will force lifestyle adjustments upon us whether Barack Obama and the UN dictate them or not; obviously it would be preferable if they did not and we were left to figure out the details for ourselves.

These lifestyle adjustments won't come easily.  MSN Money recently did an article positing what a world of $10-a-gallon gasoline would look like.  It was actually pretty sanguine.  Half the fleet of commercial passenger aircraft would be grounded, there'd be no more pizza delivery, and things like taxicabs and FedEx would become luxuries; there was just a casual mention of "civil unrest as the poor scrambled to survive" more than halfway into the article.  The truly painful adjustment away from exurban life, 40-mile one-way commutes becoming unsustainable, tract homes eventually returning to farmland in places like Kendall County, Illinois (77% population growth from 2000-2007 as people sought out more affordable housing farther away from Chicago), was barely broached. 

And the market will take care of all that.  No politician could mandate that sort of adjustment — can you imagine the uprising that would come from a program of forced relocation? — but by the same token no politician wants to acknowledge that such an adjustment is in the offing anyway.  Not even Barack Obama. 

Over the weekend, Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times, "No leading politician is yet prepared to
say that Americans may have to adjust their lifestyles to a world of
permanently higher fuel prices."  Well, Barack Obama just did — in a remarkably clumsy, heavy-handed way that pretty much guarantees an accelerated polarization of debate in this country between thick-headed left-wingers who want to micro-manage how we live (while refusing to drill for oil off the coasts of Florida and California), and thick-headed right-wingers who pine for the day of $1 gas, and if that means nuking the Arabs who produce oil, or the Chinese who consume it in increasing quantities, well so be it.

Nice going for the politician who's running on a campaign of trying to unite people.

Update:  For reasons I can't put a finger on, Obama's remark hasn't generated anywhere near the buzz I thought it would.  The campaign coverage during this news cycle has been mostly about "lay off my wife" and more back-and-forth with McCain about Iran.  But there's a long time before election day, and I haven't heard Matt Simmons back off his 2006 prediction that Peak Oil issues will dominate the '08 campaign.

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