Can you imagine what would happen if a politician today called for gas rationing? No sooner would the words come out than a chorus of talking heads would be intoning "political suicide."
And, if not political suicide, it would be serious self-mutilation to suggest high taxes on energy use or price structures that steeply increase utility rates according to the amount consumed. "He's cutting himself like a troubled teenager," Chris Matthews would caution.
Yet it wasn't always like this. During the energy crisis in the 1970s, before oil companies had completely succeeded in buying off Congress and before oilmen were running the administration, it was quite acceptable to talk about radical measures. Nor was political debate distorted by partisan warfare, unlike today, so many Republicans inclined to battle any idea, no matter how sensible, just because it was hatched by a Democrat.
In fact, one of the most prominent Republicans at the time, Melvin Laird, publicly advocated gas rationing in 1974, when he was a leading adviser to President Gerald Ford. An eight-term Republican congressman from Wisconsin and former head of the House Republican Conference, Laird had also been Richard Nixon's secretary of defense. In other words, a genuine Mr. Republican. Laird didn't mince his words, saying he wanted "a very tough, firm, hard rationing system" to cut consumption. "Sooner or later," he said, “a rationing system is going to be needed . . . because there is no awareness as far as the public is concerned to this energy problem we face." Laird blasted politicians for burying their head in the sand on energy, saying it was "the fault of the politicians" that Americans did not realize how serious the need was to cut oil consumption.
Awareness did develop, which is why we got laws doubling the fuel efficiency in cars, and a host of energy proposals. But the country and the politicians quickly forgot, and energy consumption continued to rise despite these measures. Our motor fuel consumption alone proceeded to increase by 50 billion gallons a year because we put almost 100 million more vehicles on the road, and drove them farther each year, while SUVs roared through a loophole in the law that allowed them to get lousy mileage because they were classified as trucks.
Laird also worried about sending billions of our hard-earned dollars to foreign oil suppliers, and he was dead on prophetic in ripping political leaders for ignoring the problem, and once they got the message, we all took energy policy seriously. In the 1970s, the energy crisis was called "the moral equivalent of war."
You don't hear such language about energy these days, even though we're willing to call damn near any public maneuver a war. We've got War on Drugs, War on Terror, and War on Porn. We've got war metaphors zipping across the political spectrum: conservatives decry liberals' War on Christmas and liberals decry conservatives' War on Science, while the Libertarians bemoan nothing less than the "War on Freedom."
But when it comes to energy, where's your War, like, say, a War on Gas Guzzlers or a War on Air Conditioners? You don't hear these war cries because we don't have the common sense to see that the quickest, easiest, and cheapest way to deal with our energy problem is quit using so damn much of the stuff in the first place. No, instead of promoting this old-fashioned idea of conservation, we're infatuated with technological fixes. Congress has institutionalized this attitude, calling for so-called "alternatives" fuels, such as production of 36 billion gallons of biofuels per year, or improved technologies that will require vehicles to get 35 miles per gallon, or funding for research. Congress seems to assure us that somehow we can gadgetize our way out of the crisis, and better yet, make money doing it.
As noted, however, none of these technological approaches will reduce our total fossil fuel consumption if we continue to drive more and more cars more and more miles, and if we continue to waste a preposterous amount of energy in our homes and businesses. Sure, we should develop and build energy technology to the max, but putting all our hope in technology is delusional unless the technology is accompanied by serious programs to conserve energy. These can come in many forms, from better mass transit to heavy-duty public information efforts to, if need be rationing, taxes, or changes in pricing structure. Without a serious use of such measures, we are very unlikely to make the deep dent in consumption we have to make to fight global warming and free the economy from fossil fuels.
Laird knew this, and probably so did some of the people at the energy conference he was chairing when he delivered his energy talk at, of all places, the conservative American Enterprise Institute.