four dollar gallon

In June 2000, then-presidential candidate George W. Bush told reporters, according to CNN, that Al Gore was responsible for spiking oil prices. Gore, said the GOP man, “writes in a book that he thinks we ought to have higher fuel prices, and now that he’s running for president and there’s higher fuel prices, he seems to be changing his tune.”


Bush’s words were part of a steady drumbeat of conservative criticism launched at the Clinton administration, and laced with anti-environmental, and anti-tax rhetoric, over high gas prices. In the twelve months from June 1999 to June 2000, oil prices on the world market had climbed to a shocking $34 a barrel; meanwhile, in America at-the-pump prices had jumped by over 40 percent, averaging a hard-to-fathom $1.71 a gallon by mid-2000, according to the Heritage Foundation. Some poor sods in out-of-the-way locales were having to fork over more than $2 a gallon. And, said the Republicans, it was all the fault of wooly-headed greens and their big-tax politico friends. It was also, many Republicans let it be known, the fault of OPEC… those greedy foreigners out to squeeze every last dollar from their liquid gold assets.


Ah… those innocent, halcyon days. Seven years of GOP-rule, and a half-decade of middle-eastern wars later, oil prices are about to hit $100 a barrel. And in many parts of America, especially rural areas far from distribution pipelines, consumers are facing the imminent prospect of the $4 gallon. (Actually, I paid over $4 a gallon in towns along the eastern edge of the High Sierra several months ago; my guess is today some village gas stations in remote desert and mountain wildernesses are paying up to $4.50.)


At the same time, because the Republicans so aggressively squashed attempts to raise the minimum wage during the first six years of the Bush presidency, tens of millions of Americans are earning about the same wages they were earning back in 2000 when they were hit so hard by the $2 gallon.


The scandal is in the combo of high energy prices and low wages.


Poor people can’t afford newer, more environmentally sensible cars, so they make their old gaz-guzzlers last well into automotive senility. I wrote about people in this sorry situation last year, back when gas prices were hitting the then-unfathomable $3 mark and poor people in rural counties working minimum wage jobs found themselves spending upwards of twenty percent of their income buying gas to drive to their dead-end jobs.


If gas was hitting $4 a gallon because Bush had had a road-to-Damascus awakening and had prodded Congress to enact a $2 a gallon gasoline tax so that billions of dollars could be raised for R & D into carbon-neutral energy technologies, subsidies so that poor people could afford more efficient vehicles, and a better public transport infrastructure, I’d say more power to him. But the fact is the per-barrel cost of gas is now close to triple what it was when prices peaked in 2000, and all those tens of billions of extra dollars Americans now have to spend annually filling their tanks are flowing into the treasuries of oil-producing countries and into the flush bank accounts of transnational oil companies. It’s an absolutely stunning transfer of funds and rearrangement of geopolitical power.


So where’s the outrage of the Heritage Foundation, and the concern for the little people now? In particular, where is Bush – the man who blamed the $2 gallon on a hypothetical call for higher gas taxes – today, when people earning scandalously low wages, at least in part because of his administration’s antipathy to the minimum wage, are spending a quarter of their meager paycheck simply filling up their cars to drive to work? The answer is asleep on the job, unable, because of his addiction to free market ideology, to think up creative subsidies, tax rebates and other financial and regulatory mechanisms that could ease the pain of poor people left to the oh-so-tender mercies of global energy markets.

Wild fires

I’ve spent the past several days stunned by the size of the wildfires consuming much of California. I lived in San Diego during the last bout with disaster, in October 2003. This time, however, while a fewer number of houses have been consumed statewide, the concentration of buildings lost in the San Diego area is higher. The scale of the catastrophe is simply epic.

 I wrote about this for the Guardian online yesterday. In my article I talked about the human dimension of the fires — the lives lost (thankfully, to date, “only” a few), the property destroyed, the dreams contained within those houses burned, the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing walls of flame. I also said I had a feeling many readers would take it as an ill-founded opportunity to get in some jabs at America. Unfortunately I was right. Several of the comments from readers were not only crass but deeply, perplexingly offensive. Apparently in some circles, it’s a form of radical chic to glory in each and every calamity to strike not the abstract concept of “America” but the real lives of individual Americans. 

 To my mind there’s nothing progressive about such words or thoughts. This is stupidity, pure and simple. It’s hatred masquerading as profound politics. Social justice movements need to coalesce around ideas and communal visions, not around competitions as to who can say the nastiest, ugliest words about America and Americans.

My thoughts are with all of my friends in Southern California at the moment. I wish them well and I wish the firefighters and emergency crews tackling the blazes good fortune.

Center Force Summit

I’m off in the morning to San Francisco, to a two day criminal justice forum.

The center-piece of the event is a “Socratic Dialogue” between various criminal justice reformers the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, and various prison administrators and employees. What will they say? That, I guess, I’ll have to wait to find out. What should they say? That the California prison system is in an extraordinary crisis. We’ve got 175,000 prisoners these days and within a couple years the state will be spending more dollars locking people up than it will funding the state univeristy system. That’s extraordinary.

The other day I worked out that we could take nearly one quarter of a million average-earning Californians, take all of their money and that’s what it would take to fund the state’s prisons. Or, to put it another way, we currently spend on prisons in California a sum equivalent to the entire state income tax base coming out of Los Angeles County.

Something’s outta whack in the Golden State…

Explaining the world to a four year old

My four year old daughter’s been asking me a lot of questions about politics recently. She knows I’m a journalist — indeed has started saying “Hey! Journalist!” when she wants my attention. And she loves listening to the news with my wife and I. She asks me political questions all the time, so many that I’ve started tape recording many of our conversations.

That’s great on one level. She’s interested in the world and trusts us to be able to explain it to her. But when the news is bad, things get rough pretty quickly. She asked me the other day, I think after the recent bombings in Pakistan, what a suicide bomber was. When I hemmed and hawed, trying to avoid answering, she told me she thought it must be disgusting. Why? I asked, though I guess I think much the same thing. Ugly, messy, disgusting… the awful tagline of a brutal age. Because she said, all seriousness, it’s a person on the edge of a sewer. What? I responded, utterly perplexed … and then thought about it, and realized she had heard the words “sewer side.”

Well, it makes about as much sense as anything else these days.