- The Washington Times - Friday, October 14, 2005

Americans — never more affluent or privileged — are in a gloomy mood. Take energy. The average cost of gasoline as of this writing, $2.85 a gallon, is still less, adjusted for inflation, than it in 1981. What is different today is the relatively sudden surge in gas prices is assumed to be no mere spike.

Instead, the spiraling price seems permanent and something that could grow even higher as known world reserves decline. And it is worsened by our voracious consumption and the entry of China and India into the global energy market.

In response to Americans’ anxiety over energy and other, sometimes real, sometimes perceived problems, we witness ideological stubbornness and inconsistency from both sides of the political aisle.

Conservatives, for example, are trying to block raising automobile fuel-efficiency standards, hoping the market will adjudicate any energy waste. When the price of gas gets too high, strapped consumers, conservatives argue, will choose not to buy SUVs and monster pickups.

For their own part, liberals concede nuclear-powered electric power plants won’t contribute to global warming. And these plants now run as cheaply as burning natural gas and keep energy dollars here at home.

But here, as with their opposition to petroleum drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or off the nation’s coasts, the environmentally orthodox are straitjacketed by ideology — dreaming new-tech alternate energy and conservation can alone lower costs and keep petrodollars out of the hands of unstable Middle East regimes.

These conservative and liberal fantasies also paralyze solutions to budget deficits.

True, Republican-endorsed tax cuts have led to more net federal revenue in 2005 than in 2001. Yet — even with the unanticipated costs of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the ongoing war and Hurricane Katrina — if the Bush administration had kept entitlement spending to Bill Clinton’s levels (with small increases for inflation), we would today have a balanced budget and a small surplus.

Instead, 2001-2005 marked the wildest growth in nondiscretionary domestic outlay in our recent history. Even with an expanding economy, vast new federal income could not keep pace with even vaster expenditures.

So the valid Republican supply-side argument that tax cuts create more revenue meant little in balancing the budget. Equally irrelevant was the “starve the beast” notion that tax cuts would require mandatory budgetary discipline — especially when many so-called conservative legislators proved fond of pork-barrel spending.

Now some free-marketers tell us a $400 billion annual budget deficit doesn’t matter much, ignoring even the psychological depression such borrowing causes a once-confident citizenry.

The Democrats, for their part, won’t re-examine entitlement programs to ascertain which aren’t working or are even counterproductive, such as agricultural and many education subsidies. Apparently, the Democrats’ answer to mounting debt will be the old calculus of substantial cuts in the military (during a war) and new tax increases (possibly cooling the economy).

The same public pessimism applies to Iraq. War supporters cite steady growth of Iraqi security forces and the uninterrupted, continual elections and constitutional reform. Since Saddam Hussein’s removal, there has been no September 11-like attack in the U.S., but there have been positive changes in Lebanon, Egypt and Libya. And the majority of Iraqis tell pollsters they hope the U.S. stays and finishes the job.

Critics discount that good news and note the nearly 2,000 U.S. fatalities, thousands more wounded, billions of dollars spent and near-daily news of suicide bombers and improvised explosive devices.

In response, some impatient conservatives wish to attack Syria and Iran to thwart their support for jihadists crossing into Iraq — though public support is lacking for a wider war.

Some liberals want an immediate withdrawal, even that would hand the terrorists what they can’t win on the battlefield. The only viable solution — staying the course — does not satisfy those demanding either much more or much less.

In sheer numbers, more people are working than at any time in our history. Homeownership is at record levels. We haven’t been attacked in more than four years. And yet even low unemployment, low inflation and low interest rates have not brought the public a sense of calm, given the worry over energy costs, national debt and the war abroad.

Usually such angst — less than half the population expresses confidence in the administration — would aid the opposition. It hasn’t, as the Democrats offer no systematic alternative.

And fatalism grows among a normally can-do public. Voters no longer trust once tight-fisted Republicans to balance the budget. And the old war party of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy is no longer credible on national security.

The voters want to expand traditional domestic energy sources and curtail consumption. But the two horn-locked parties see these as either/or rather than complementary choices.

The result is that, while things are not nearly as bad as they seem, a frustrated public feels they are far worse.

Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and author of the just-released “A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.”

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