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The More Things Change,
the More Things Change

Soaring gas prices are going to have lasting effects.

12:00 AM, Jun 3, 2008 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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There is a lesson here for politicians. For years successive presidents and congresses have railed against America's dependence on foreign oil: President Bush even referred to America's "oil addiction." Recently, politicians who worry about the nation's dependence on foreign oil have forged an alliance with environmentalists who allege that the end of the world is nigh as a warming globe inflicts upon us floods and droughts, not to mention pestilence and a world devoid of polar bears. So they have increased mandated fuel-efficiency standards, forcing auto makers to include in their output mixes cars no one will buy; subsidized the production of ethanol from corn, adding to upward pressures on food costs; and spent billions subsidizing new power-generation technologies. With an effect that few will argue is proportionate to the cost.

Now comes the market, and does what politicians won't. Prices go up. Lo and behold, Jim Rogers, CEO of one of America's largest utilities, reports that thermostats are adjusted to cut electricity use; gasoline use falls as more and more consumers car-pool and switch to mass transit; and all of the things politicians have been trying to force consumers to do are getting done.

Unfortunately, politicians continue to pander to the short-term interests of voters, and remain adamantly opposed to allowing high prices to do what high prices do best: curtail demand and increase supplies. So they try to find ways of bringing prices down--by brow-beating oil company executives, or promising to lower gasoline taxes, or begging OPEC to show mercy. In America, areas in Alaska and off-shore California, Florida and other states, remain closed to exploration and development, while politicians responsible for these bans rail against OPEC for not producing more oil.

Vladimir Putin, eager to stem the decline in Russia's oil production, is reducing the tax burden on his nation's oil companies to increase their incentive to drill and produce increasingly high-priced oil. America's politicians, the Democrats leading the way, want to raise taxes on U.S. oil companies, never mind the supply-side effect of such a move. "Across the world," writes Zakaria, "economics is trumping politics." Unfortunately, the triumph of economics is not yet complete in Washington, D.C.

Irwin M. Stelzer is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute, and a columnist for the Sunday Times (London).