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When it comes to oil, Tom can see clearly now


It cost me more than $30 to fill up my car the other day. I appreciate your sympathy.

As I stood there at Costco, watching the numbers spin by like the year marker on The Time Machine (the original, with Rod Taylor), I had a brief moment of pristine clarity. It might have been years of experience coalescing into rare insight. Or it could have been that the rubber thing on the nozzle was faulty, and some of the gas fumes got out. All I know is that I now know this:

• It really is OK to despise the guy in the Hummer. I heard some jackass on the radio say that they felt bad for the poor people who have to pay $100 to fill up their Hummers. First of all, they're not poor. If they had enough disposable income to buy one of those overpriced pieces of junk in the first place, they have enough to fill it up.

I have a friend who says that he bought one for his wife so that she and the kids would be safe from all the bad drivers. I asked why he didn't just get her a Honda and ask her not to talk on the phone while she drives. That would make her safer than the 10 inches of steel plating on the tank in which she lumbers around.

Another friend, Jonathan, is a horribly misguided libertarian, which, despite your initial reaction, is not redundant. He says that when he sees someone in a Hummer, he sees a person who is successful and is enjoying the fruits of his labors. (He also still puts out a Dungeons and Dragons newsletter.)

That brings us to a fundamental point of divergence. Some people believe that the best way to be an American is to make a lot of money and spend a lot of money. Others think that it might be better to identify a common goal and then sacrifice a little bit in order to put ourselves in a position where we can tell the other countries in the world (especially those in the Middle East) to perform an anatomically impossible act upon themselves.

• Those of us who are old enough to have lived through two or three of the oil "crises" can't help but be a bit amused and upset by the current situation.

It wasn't long after the Yom Kippur War in 1973 that the oil-producing countries (with, I still firmly believe, the full compliance of the giant oil companies) decided to stick it to the United States for its support of Israel.

There were fake shortages and price gouging and gas lines. But America (and Americans) responded: Higher fuel efficiency was mandated; people started driving smaller cars; and the Interstate speed limit was lowered. But a couple of years after oil prices stabilized (and even dropped a bit), we were back to buying big cars and writing songs about not being able to "drive 55."

I've always said that it was like in The Longest Yard (the original, not the Adam Sandler monstrosity) where the Mean Machine line lets the sadistic prison guard, Bogdanski, come through the line so Burt Reynolds' character, Paul Crewe, can hit him right in the groin with the ball. After Bogdanski staggers back to his huddle, Crewe says, "Well, it worked once. Let's do it again."

We got hammered again in 1979, but then Hondas and Datsuns (Nissans) and Toyotas hit the market, and by the mid-1980s, we had successfully jawboned the price of a gallon of gas down to about half of what it had been a couple of years earlier. Did we learn from our success? No. We bought minivans, then SUVs and then Hummers.

We deserve to get pimp-slapped.

I'm guessing that it's not even fun anymore for the oil people in Saudi Arabia. They probably feel like they're picking on the handicapped.

• The next person on radio or TV who uses the phrase, "The price of oil, when adjusted for inflation ..." deserves a sound thrashing. Without going into the mathematics, you can't adjust for inflation when that which you're studying is also the cause of the inflation. It's like saying, "Had it not been for the fire, those flames wouldn't have been nearly as destructive."

Giving people the benefit of the doubt, I'd like to think that those who say that stuff are being fatuous, but that's too generous. They're probably just stupid.

• And finally, the phrase, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions" will undoubtedly be the subhead for the chapter in history books on the story of ethanol. Anyone with half a brain now knows that ethanol is a bad, bad idea. It costs way too much to produce; it's not a particularly efficient form of energy; it damages cars that use it; it pollutes like crazy; and it has driven the price of corn through the roof, with a devastating effect that's rippling through the entire economy and probably killing people overseas.

But if you think it's bad riding a sled down a steep ice-covered snowpack, try changing political momentum when it gets going. This boondoggle will be with us for decades.

I may someday soon have to pay $40 to fill up.

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