February 5, 2006
Yes, We're Addicted--To Economic Growth
By Thomas Bray

I admit it. I am addicted to oil. Parson Bush has found me out.

But I have something else to confess. I am addicted to food as well. I eat every day, often three times a day. I am addicted to houses; my wife and I own two of them. I am addicted to water; I drink it all the time, even swim in it.

Of course America is addicted to oil, in the sense that it uses a lot of the stuff. But as Bush also pointed out, the American economy is the envy of the world. There is a close connection between the two things. North Korea doesn’t use much oil, but would you want to live there? What Americans are addicted to is economic growth.

Let’s get real, folks. Currently there is no alternative to oil, as much as the Sierra Club might like us to believe otherwise. America has lots of coal, but among other things coal requires lots of coal mines – and we have seen lately what can happen in a coal mine. America has lots of wind and sunshine, but what little power it provides only exists courtesy of fat subsidies that enlarge the national debt. Nuclear power? Not in my back yard!

True, more than half of our petroleum supply is imported, often from highly volatile places. But that is nothing new. America’s “dependence” on foreign oil goes back half a century. It has been increasing in recent decades, thanks in part to the refusal of the environmental lobby to allow any drilling in the United States.

Yes, there is probably an entrepreneur out there who will come up with a better idea. But it won’t happen because government is throwing billions at the problem. Government already has thrown billions at ethanol, but that has more to do with subsidizing corn farmers than seriously reducing dependence on oil. Even Greens are dubious about ethanol, which would require plowing up millions of acres to make a dent in petroleum use – or else require us to forego our addiction to food.

And how does isolating ourselves from unstable parts of the world square with Bush’s impassioned jeremiad, in the same speech, against the false temptations of isolationism and protectionism? Yes, some dysfunctional junta or other, say Iran or Russia, might be tempted to play the oil card. But not for long: the oil producers need the revenue just as badly as we need the oil.

Bush may find that his rhetoric comes with a steep price. If oil is an addiction, then we must be forced to deprive ourselves of it. The left is thrilled. Already there have been calls from Democrats for a “Manhattan Project” for alternative fuels. The Sierra Club’s Carl Pope gleefully declared that “the old energy game is up” and asserted that there is no longer any excuse for failing to clamp rigid controls on global warming emissions.

At the very least there will be calls for draconian increases in fuel economy in automobiles and/or sharply higher taxes on gasoline, as if the oil price increases of the last year weren’t sufficient. Will a President who has declared oil an “addiction” be in a position to resist? And what greater tool is there for the long-desired central planning of the economy than placing Washington bureaucrats in charge of energy use?

The era of big government is over, declared Bill Clinton in his 1996 State of the Union address. The era of big government is just beginning, declared Bush last week. What may be over, thanks to Bush’s addiction to rhetoric, is this president’s ability to pursue a growth agenda.

Thomas Bray is a Detroit News columnist.

Thomas Bray

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