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Thursday, June 19, 2008

You Can Make the World a Better Place - Part II

If I surveyed 1,000 people and asked them to name the five most pressing issues in our society, there would probably be one topic on most people’s short list – our country’s spiraling energy costs, including the high price of gasoline. To be fair, there are other issues that require our urgent, national attention – the mortgage crises; the credit crunch; losing factory jobs to oversees’ manufacturers; children’s lack of respect for authority; etc. However, most American’s are similarly affected by high energy costs, while we can debate the extent of other national problems.

If a special interest group planned a rally on Capitol Hill to push for legislation that limited credit card companies from arbitrarily raising customer interest rates, chances are there would not be bus loads of people from around the country making the trek to wave their protest placards. Likewise, if the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, aka ACORN, planned a gathering in Washington to urge our lawmakers to develop meaningful legislation to assist homeowners facing foreclosure, the event probably wouldn’t cause any traffic delays in Washington, D.C. And despite the fact that gasoline prices are climbing into nose-bleed territory, consumer advocate Ralph Nadar probably couldn’t organize a demonstration on the National Mall that would be mistaken in size for the Million Man March or the 1963 March on Washington.

The lack of participation in bringing about social change is not because Americans view these and other issues as unimportant. In fact, most would probably agree that these issues are central to the preservation of the ‘unalienable Rights’ guaranteed us by the founding document of this country – the Declaration of Independence. Since the 1970s there has been an erosion of our national inclination to dissent, and this, I propose, is the main reason why the majority of Americans will not engage in the struggle for social change. Sure, we’ll protest at the water cooler on the job, or in the carpool ride to work, or across the fence while chatting with a neighbor, but we’re woefully absent when the rallying cry is made to collectively express our discontent with the way things are.

Has America crossed the Rubicon into an era where our democracy is in peril, because we lack the social motivation to collectively demand change? Change does not always profit the beneficiary, as we are now experiencing at the pump. In the year 2000 crude oil was selling for $11 per barrel and the average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline was a little more than one dollar. Now, in less than two presidential administrations, crude oil is selling for almost $140 per barrel and a gallon of regular gasoline is selling for more than four dollars, with some places in the country selling gas for more than five dollars per gallon.

I recently met a Christian who attends one of the mega-churches in the Washington metropolitan area. She advised me that the Church cost more than $60 million to build, and as soon as the congregation moved in, there was a steep decline in contributions. In response, I shared with her that at the end of the Clinton administration, I was paying about $35 to fill up my truck with premium grade gasoline. Now, it is costing me more than $85 to fill up today. That’s $50 that use to be discretionary that is now being siphoned into the gas tank. If I fill up eight or nine times in one month, simple mathematics reveals that I’m paying nearly $500 extra per month for fuel expense. That is the dilemma that all Americans are facing and for some, it is the difference between getting back and forth to work and giving a charitable donation to one’s Church. I hesitate saying it, but I think the Church is going to find itself on the losing end of this proposition every time.

What factors are driving these outrageous costs?! We can debate whether it’s market forces, or the greedy manipulation of the commodities market, or some other nefarious activity that has brought many households to the brink of bankruptcy, but one thing is certain, at the expense of the working class, the oil companies are posting inhumane profits. Buoyed by soaring oil prices, Exxon Mobil posted $40 billion in profits in 2007. These earnings are so enormous, one could not count them in a lifetime without the aid of a computer.

A number of Congressmen have suggested that they are willing to enact legislation that would reduce the price of gasoline. However, oil company executives and those lobbying on their behalf are outraged that Congress will consider tampering with what they say are market forces. Speculative oil trades are being blamed by some lawmakers for the irrational increase that we’ve seen in the price of a barrel of oil. Although executives from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, two of Wall Street’s largest investment banks, argue just the opposite; that speculative oil trades have no impact on the price of oil. In fact, they countered that it builds a certain efficiency in the international market.

Since the testimony of these Wall Street executives is being met with skepticism from me and many in Congress, I make the following suggestion to help Americans get to the root of our outrageous energy costs. However, first allow me to provide some background relative to how we may have arrived at a $40 billion profit for Exxon Mobil: One of the first major efforts that President Bush pursued after he entered the White House in 2001 was to authorize the National Energy Policy Development Task Force, commonly referred to as the Cheney Energy Task Force, since Vice President, Dick Cheney was appointed as the chairman. According to the President, the composition of the task force was limited to government officials; however, reports later leaked that the task force met early and often with oil executives, including then Enron President Kenneth Lay and a number of lobbyists.

After the task force completed its work, it refused to make its findings public, claiming ‘Executive Privileged.’ This appears to be in violation of the Federal Advisory Commission Act (FACA), which mandates that certain documents, task force members, meetings, and decision-making activities be open to the public. Judicial Watch, a government watchdog agency and the General Accountability Office filed suit to force the administration to release the task force report. However, to this day, the Bush Administration has yet to release the report.

I’m sure that this comedy (or is it a tragedy) is not lost on anyone, but allow me to identify the players: We have a president who has a long, albeit limited, history of making profitable oil deals; we have a vice president who once led Halliburton, one of the largest energy companies in the country; we have energy executives and lobbyists advising the White House on its energy policy; we have an administration which refuses to release the task force report; and seven years later gasoline prices are out of control.

Does anyone else see anything wrong with that picture?

As I sit back in my Lazy Boy solving the problems of the world, I’ll suggest a possible remedy here: I recommend that Barack Obama challenge John McCain to join him in a bi-partisan effort to urge the Bush Administration to release the findings of the Cheney Energy Task Force. Obama should make that demand part of his stump speech, so that everywhere he goes, the citizens of our great nation will see his campaign theme in action – “Change you can believe in,” as well as his mantra of not being beholden to the special interests. He has a golden opportunity to distinguish himself from his opponents by standing up to the administration and its big oil chaperon.

And if you would like to be heard on this issue as well, I encourage you to email Senators Obama and McCain demanding that they press the Bush Administration to exhibit more transparency to the American public by releasing the task force's report. Senator Obama can be reached by clicking here and Senator McCain can be reached by clicking here. Remember, one snow flake will melt on the shoulder of a passerby, but if enough of them fall, they can paralyze a city. Let your voice be heard.

...to be continued

Copy sent to Senators Obama and McCain

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