“Spiraling” Oil Prices and “Obscene” Profits

by | May 7, 1999

On April 30, motorists nationwide staged the “Great American Gas-Out,” to protest “spiraling” gas prices. And when consumers complain, rest assured politicians will do something dumb to make them happy. It didn’t take long. In California, something called the Senate Transportation and Energy committee quickly held hearings, summoning oil company executives and demanding that they […]
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

On April 30, motorists nationwide staged the “Great American Gas-Out,” to protest “spiraling” gas prices. And when consumers complain, rest assured politicians will do something dumb to make them happy. It didn’t take long.

In California, something called the Senate Transportation and Energy committee quickly held hearings, summoning oil company executives and demanding that they “justify” their price “gouging.” The executives offered “explanations” — OPEC cutbacks, fires at refineries, California’s expensive “clean air” fuel requirements, blah, blah, blah. But what’s wrong with this picture?

Say you put your house up for sale. You find a buyer willing to pay nearly $15,000 more than the listed price. But three days later, you get a letter in the mail from something called the State Department of Excessive Profits: “Dear Homeowner, We understand that you received substantially more than the listed price for your home. Please report Monday morning, at 9:30 a.m. to our downtown office, to explain your excessive profits. You may wish to consult counsel.”

Most of us work for a living. At the end of the year, many of us seek raises. Do we worry about whether we “gouged” our employer? Or do we seek the maximum amount based on what we perceive to be our contribution to the enterprise?

Where does the state get off asking a private employer to “justify” profits? The correct answer is that given by Robert De Niro in the movie “Guilty by Suspicion” about the Hollywood blacklist. The House Committee on Un-American Activities sought names of communist sympathizers. De Niro refused, shouting, “Don’t you have any shame?!”

Did oil companies “take advantage” of consumers’ demand for gasoline? As President Clinton might have said, define “take advantage.” Oil companies charge what the market will bear, as do Wendy’s, Wal-Mart and Barbra Streisand for a concert ticket. Got a problem with that? Is there a law against making a buck, something that benefits the employees as well as the shareholders?

People defending President Clinton against charges of perjury and obstruction of justice argued that he answered a question that “never should have been asked in the first place.” Let’s apply that here. No business person, operating lawfully, should ever be asked to explain profits. And implicit in the question is the absurd notion that oil executives can charge whatever they want, whenever they want, for as long as they want, without a consumer backlash — a backlash that may mean buying more fuel-efficient cars, moving closer to work, carpooling or shopping more aggressively for cheaper gas.

Why not hold hearings on the buying habits of gas consumers? “Why, madam, did you buy that sport utility vehicle that gets only 10 miles to the gallon?” “Why, sir, do you live nearly an hour and a half away from your job?” “Have you considered public transportation?” “Have you considered not taking off to Vegas or Atlantic City for the weekend in that gas-guzzling Chrysler minivan?”

This oil company inquisition is yet another waste of taxpayers’ money, driven by politicians more willing to placate their constituents’ anger than to explain the basic law of supply and demand. Let’s hold hearings! Let’s have an investigation!

Politicians will not remind motorists that, adjusted for inflation, gas is actually cheaper than during the so-called energy crisis of the early ’70s. Nor will politicians remind consumers that a big factor in gasoline prices remains the hairy hidden hand of the government, in the form of state and federal highway taxes, as well as state sales tax.

Guess the oil execs know how Los Angeles Dodger pitcher Kevin Brown feels. Brown recently signed with the Dodgers for a multiyear $105 million deal. He turned down an offer from his old team, the San Diego Padres, to stay for $60 million.

When Brown returned to pitch in San Diego for the first time, the crowd booed. See, when given a choice between $60 million and $105 million, the average guy takes the $60 mil. Ri-i-ight. And someday, they’ll appoint Dr. Jack Kevorkian surgeon general.

Somewhere, Karl Marx, co-author of the “Communist Manifesto,” is smiling. Communism says from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. In other words, take from the talented, the hard-working and the risk-taking, and give to everybody else. This is precisely what “gassed-out” consumers tell politicians, who are only too happy to dance the voter-pleasing soft shoe on cue. “Hearings, I say!”

So, oil executives, a little advice. The next time a politician holds an inquiry demanding that you “explain” your “obscene profits,” try this. Take a sip of water, calmly clear your throat, respectfully greet the members of the committee, and say, “Up yours.”

This editorial is made available through Creator's Syndicate. Best-selling author, radio and TV talk show host, Larry Elder has a take-no-prisoners style, using such old-fashioned things as evidence and logic. His books include: The 10 Things You Can’t Say in America, Showdown: Confronting Bias, Lies and the Special Interests That Divide America, and What’s Race Got to Do with It? Why it’s Time to Stop the Stupidest Argument in America,.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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