Gas Price Archive

Eating shoes & guzzling gas? Who you gonna call?


originally published June 23, 1996

What's the best thing we can do for kids? Take your own poll. Ask the first three children you see. Ask the first three hundred. I'll eat your shoes if any of them come up with Bob Dole's answer: balance the federal budget. Cool.

Is this guy a visionary, or what? We should not judge the career politician from Kansas too harshly. He chose honest work. Public service is honorable service. And it takes years to learn. Indeed, Bill Clinton's current crop of administrative disasters prove that George Bush was right, the White House is not the place for on-the-job training.

As Jimmy Carter learned before him, Democratic administrations had become so rare in the 24-year Nixon to Bush cycle that experienced help was hard to find outside museums. Mr. Carter chose to govern with his whiz kid election staff. He also installed outsider activists in positions of power. Bad idea.

As a presidential candidate, the obscure former Georgia governor was vulnerable to charges of inexperience. He made ignorance of things Washington the centerpiece of his successful 1976 campaign. Ronald Reagan stole the act, sang the tunes and turned it into the biggest "me, too" hit of 1980. When Bob Dole criticizes Bill Clinton for being the "me, too" candidate, he's right. Clinton ran as an outsider in 1992, beating insider Bush. Dole resigned a safe U.S. Senate seat in trying to paint the outsider veneer onto himself. His rendering of the familiar anti-Washington song thus rings a little flat.

Government is a good and necessary creation of civilized people. Unless we give up a measure of individual sovereignty to a government, it's back to the jungle. Career bureaucrats and politicians are absolute necessities for running an increasingly complex country. Greenhorns and zealots do damage when placed in power.

Those who are effective at advocating a point of view outside of government usually make lousy public servants. Government must perform a balancing role, listening to all sides on complex questions. That's why we hate mealy-mouthed, double-talking, equivocating politicians and love tell-it-like-it-is talk show hosts. Radio and TV types can say whatever cockamamie thing they want. They can be irresponsible because they are not saddled with the responsibility of putting their words into policy that affects people's lives.

Carter and Reagan were more alike than they were different. Trucking and airline deregulation happened under Jimmy the Peanuttiest. Somnolent Ron upped the ante on anything goes and replaced Carter's zealots with those made in Rev. Jerry Falwell's image and likeness.

We are now well into our third decade of putting greenhorns and zealots into high government positions. Lyndon Johnson saw it coming. Commenting on the Nixon administration, Johnson said "I'm surprised that Dick has surrounded himself with so many amateurs."

The net result has been erosion of the public's faith in its institutions. Political campaigns have become so vulgar that most people don't participate, let alone vote. As a result, a monied minority rules. It governs in a manner to promote the continued well being of --- surprise, surprise --- itself.

DESTROYING DEMOCRACY BY DISGUST is now even a mainstream campaign tactic. Republican campaign pro Ed Rollins wasn't just smugly musing when he bragged of his New Jersey strategy of trying to turn off black voters in his successful campaign to elect Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

As Woody Allen so wisely said so many years ago, "80 percent of success is just showing up." You can't hit a home run if you never come up to bat. Keeping the opposing team off the field is the net result of our current politics of revulsion, of which 1996 will be the worst example.

It worked well in 1994. Minorities and women stayed home or went to lunch. Next morning, they woke up to the guffaws of Lush Rambo announcing that Newt and the Zootsuits had come to power.

"The Christian right, which represents about 10 percent of the U.S. population, now constitutes around 30 percent of those who vote," religious right scholar Sara Diamond recently told Z Magazine. (She is the author of "Spiritual Warfare," "Roads to Dominion" and "Facing the Wrath," which trace the evolution of fundamentalist religion in U.S. politics.)

The religionauts are among legions who serve a very useful purpose for the power elite. Special interest groups are usually very narrowly focused and emotional about their particular issues. The mass media love emotion. Picket lines, militias, mass arrests, abortion clinic shootings and jury trials are right out of central casting, ready for prime time.

The real skullduggery is hard to photograph and the resultant damage is usually not a very sexy story. After you've done one newscast on the homeless, you've done them all, right? As far as what caused such economic displacement, who cares?

I've got a very simple, time-honored cure for what ails us: spread the wealth. And the good news, ex-senator person, is you can do it and balance the budget, which we both agree would be the best thing for kids, right?

HAVING YOUR CAKE AND EATING IT, TOO: We are the richest, fattest, big ole baddest country in the world. We just don't spread the wealth. Bob Dole and Bill Clinton would be well advised to look at the political rewards awaiting those that do. Louisiana Gov. Huey P. Long was as corrupt as Cajun food is hot. But his "chicken in every pot" way of doing things made him politically (if not personally) bulletproof.

Twenty years or so after Huey was gunned down, the state of Washington had a similarly colorful chief executive. A young reporter cornered the governor and confronted him with smoking gun evidence. Some state agencies were instructing people to make checks for fees and taxes payable personally to the governor.

"That's true alright," said hizzoner.

"Do you use the money personally?" asked the journalist, going for the kill.

"Sure, some of it. But I spread a lot of it around. That new road you drove today to get here, it helped pay for that. And it helped pay for that new orphanage in the next town. I spend most of it, keep a little for expenses and whatever's left over goes to me."

That particular governor served many popular years in office with his philosophy of enlightened self interest, or government as commissioned sales work.

GUNS OR BUTTER: Governments must either spread the wealth or face revolution. We are rapidly approaching that point. This month brought two major warnings. The Wall Street Journal reported that somewhere between 1,000,000 and 5,800,000 men have permanently left the work force, almost one million in the past year alone. They are so discouraged that they have stopped looking. They thus no longer appear on the unemployment rolls, causing serious understatement of unemployment rates.

Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau revised its official figures on who makes how much. It turns out that those of us who have been decrying the nation's income inequality have been wrong. The top 20 percent of families do not earn 40 percent of the money. They earn 46.9 percent, an inflation-adjusted 44 percent jump since 1968. The bottom fifth saw an income rise of just seven percent, or a measly one-quarter of one percent per year from '68 to '94. That's not a democracy, that's a banana republic. The income gap is the largest since WWII. More wealth is concentrated into the hands of the top five percent now than at any time since 1929, just before the infamous stock market crash.

THE TRULY LARGEST TAX INCREASE IN HISTORY: This rising inequality could not have been accomplished without the complete cooperation of the U.S. government as elected and empowered by thee and me. A tax increase of 1,870 percent, by far the largest in history (no matter what any politician says), was imposed in 1943 to pay for World War II. Afterward, the progressive taxation of the 1950's and 1960's gave us the most robust economy and healthiest middle class the world had ever seen. (Read all about it in "America: Who Really Pays the Taxes?" by Pulitzer Prize winners Don Barlett and Jim Steele, 10 bucks at any bookstore.)

Progressive taxation means spreading the wealth. Those who earn more pay a higher percentage than those who make less. It works. By spreading the wealth, the Great American Dream Machine rocketed like a Detroit built V-8 belching fire on all cylinders.

Then, rich white guys started screwing with the system. Alas and alack, it all began with the hallowed John F. Kennedy's 1963 tax cut for the rich, signed by Johnson the following year. Ever since, usually in the name of tax reform, corporations and wealthy individuals have weaseled highly preferential treatment from "our" government. No wonder some people have chosen to drop out.

TUNE IN, TURN ON, DROP OUT: Criminal paramilitary forces have been forming in both the backwoods and inner cities. The cammodudes in green fatigues joined the women and minorities who didn't vote in 1994. Who can blame them for feeling they have no stake in the system? The Dream Machine's wheels have come off. Mom has left home to help feed the kids and every politician in sight has a bushel of irrelevant remedies. Congressional Democrats are in the process of proposing their version of the GOP's Orwellian 1994 Contract with America, only with Familysomething in the title.

We have plenty of wealth to go around. We really can solve all of our problems, and government can provide the solutions. Bill Clinton is wrong, every problem can be addressed by a government program. Only a large central government could have handled the industrial revolution and won WWI and WWII. Our increasing population means more things for government to do.

The alternative can be seen in Fresno, California. People are finally getting worried about urban sprawl sucking up the richest farmland in the world. Fifty years ago, Los Angeles was the country's most productive agricultural area. Now, it's boring Fresno. At current population projections, the fertile San Joaquin Valley won't be able to feed its own people by the year 2080.

Who you gonna call?

CALIFORNIA CANCER: The real reasons for this summer's gasoline price gouging appeared in a four-part series in this column and apparently nowhere else. The oilogopolistic pricing scheme of the California-based oil companies is now poised to go nationwide. Briefly put, it involves making ARCO the price leader. Oil companies don't need to conspire to fix prices. All they need do is check what ARCO is selling for and follow accordingly. Every time the opportunity arises to gouge profits, they all raise prices quickly, in unison. But prices only fall slowly afterward, with ARCO again leading the way.

Everyone but ARCO stays curiously high for awhile, but small, independent retailers get hurt the most. Little guys must buy gas from major oil companies, who continue to keep the wholesale price high after a major uptick. They are willing to lose business to ARCO for a short time if it means squeezing a few independents out of business. A few weeks ago, I quoted court testimony from an ARCO dealer forced to sell below cost while such a squeeze was on. I also printed parts of the infamous "smoking gun" memo in which ARCO's CEO details the strategy.

Over the past decade, the number of price-cutting independents has severely dwindled. Pretty soon, only the big oil companies will remain, able to set their prices with no fear of competition. This will be a true oilogopoly, wherein a select few control the market.

"All you can depend on is that when gas is $5.00 a gallon, ARCO will cost $4.98," one ARCO dealer told me. Only five jurisdictions have "divorcement laws," barring oil producers and refiners from selling gas at the pump. Nevada is one of them, but no major oil producing state has such a law.

Well over 90 percent of west coast gas comes from Alaskan crude, but California prices (which rub off on Nevada) were higher than anywhere in the country at their recent peak. The only plausible reason was the unspoken conspiracy of cut-throat pricing I detailed here between April 28 and May 19.

A few weeks ago, California State Sen. Quentin Kopp introduced a bill to limit big oil ownership of gas stations. Senate Bill 1612, the "California Open Competition Act" also calls for a government study of competition, gives gas retailers freedom from the phony high prices imposed by big oil refiners and allows retailers to get into the alternative fuel business without fear of reprisal.

Sounds like big government to me. Got a better idea? Let me know who you gonna call.

CUT THROAT PRICING YOU CAN TAKE PRIDE IN: The giveaway of our county hospital was the biggest hemorrhage of public assets in northwestern Nevada history. For a limited time only, you can get a copy of the grand jury report on the theft of Washoe Medical Center by corporate weasels and kinky politicians. Go to Office Depot on E. Plumb Lane next to Price/Costco. The 44-page report, better known as "how to acquire a major medical center for no money down," can be obtained for $2.21 plus sales tax. That's 95 percent off the $44 they charge down at the courthouse.

Who you gonna call?

Be well. Raise hell.


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© Andrew Barbano

Andrew Barbano is a member of Communications Workers of America Local 9413 and editor of U-News, where the past four years of columns may be accessed. Barbwire by Barbano has originated in the Daily Sparks Tribune since 1988.

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