- The Washington Times - Friday, June 29, 2001

One of the advantages of age is that you can vividly remember things that the baby boomers and 20-somethings may never have heard of.

It is in this spirit that I'd like to remind California Gov. Gray Davis and other government officials that this is not the first time we've had to wrestle with energy problems. There's a right way and a wrong way to deal with them. And despite recent public opinion polls showing that a majority of Americans favor limits on the wholesale price of electricity, price controls are the wrong way.

I was in my fourth term as a U.S. congressman from Indiana serving as head of the Republican Task Force on Energy and Resources when President Nixon faced the first Arab oil boycott in 1973. I can similarly remember when supporters of the Ayatollah Khomeini shut down Iran's oil fields in December 1978, creating a crisis for the Carter administration, and a great deal of unpleasantness for the rest of us, who were forced to spend a part of each week sitting in gas lines. The shortages, of course, were accompanied by sharp increases in prices a double whammy.

The two presidents had much in common. Both were plagued by serious disruptions in energy supplies. Both were haunted with inflation. And both responded by flirting with controls Mr. Nixon with a 90-day wage-and-price freeze in the summer of 1971 (later changed to mere "guidelines") and Mr. Carter with gas rationing and "temporary," "voluntary" controls, which threatened to become involuntary and permanent.

It was precisely at that moment in history in early 1979 that a new book, "Forty Centuries of Wage and Price Controls," was published by the Heritage Foundation, reminding Washington that rationing and price controls had been tried many times before in ancient Egypt, Babylon and China, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, in Revolutionary War America (when the Continental Army almost starved as a result) and in Britain in the 1960s always with the same result: failure.

So Mr. Gray and his supporters should heed a bit of homespun wisdom: "Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it." And price caps can have only one lasting result: They will produce shortages that will make the current "rolling blackouts" in northern California seem like power surges.

There are no magic solutions to America's energy woes. The worst possible response is anything that further disrupts the market.

Unfortunately, the problems we face today are almost identical to the problems we faced in 1979. Simply put: a mismatch between supply and demand, aggravated by government subsidies and regulation and a lack of political will. Though President Reagan bought us additional time by immediately deregulating the price of natural gas when he took office, the rest of the energy tableau has remained virtually unchanged.

As President Bush has wisely recognized, the United States must increase energy production or face the consequences. Sure, conservation is good. But I'm old enough to remember previous conservation efforts, such as President Johnson in the 1960s turning off the White House lights and Mr. Carter in the 1970s sitting there in one of his cardigan sweaters ordering the White House thermostat down during the winter.

Nice gestures, but they don't run machinery and automobiles, they don't light our offices and workplaces and they don't provide cool air during those muggy 90-degree days that lie ahead.

Some, of course, consider automobiles and air conditioning wasteful and evil. Tell that to your ailing 85-year-old mother or grandmother living on a fixed income in a retirement home. Senior citizens are always the ones who are hurt the most by energy shortages and price spikes.

The United States needs to increase all sources of energy coal, natural gas, oil and nuclear. Windmill power can produce only so much; hydroelectric is possible only where you have plenty of fast-flowing water; and most Americans don't want to sit in the dark, unless it's an air-conditioned movie theater.

Our politicians have spent much of the past decade dithering. The problems we face today are self-imposed and unnecessary. Mr. Bush has laid out a well-balanced energy plan. It's time for Washington to get serious about our future. We cannot delay any longer.

Roger Zion, age 80, is honorary chairman of the 60 Plus Association.

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