When I was a child my parents knew a woman who would come and stay with my brothers and sisters and me on the extremely rare occasion that both my Mom and Dad were away at the same time. Mom was a full-time Mom so this nearly never occurred, but once in a blue moon, my parents would allow themselves a romantic getaway from their five children. The woman who watched us went on to her eternal reward long ago but out of respect, I will not call her by her real name. For this column, she will be Margaret.
Margaret was an absolute sweetheart. She loved and watched over each of my siblings and me as if we were her own. Her good intentions were always clear, but sometimes her execution was flawed. Margaret was rather portly, to put it politely. She was also rather clumsy. When she wasn’t around my parents referred to her, in the most loving way possible, as “fumble fingers.”
Margaret was prone to drop, spill or break a wide variety of objects, so when she would offer to dust the small collectible statues my Mom kept or to clean the fine china, my parent’s eyes would grow wide and in unison, they would exclaim, “No no no! You don’t have to do that.” It would always be followed by some polite verbal softener like, “We don’t want to burden you.” The real reason of course was that despite Margaret’s good intentions, there was an extremely high likelihood that old “fumble fingers” would break a statue or piece of china. It was just how she was hard-wired.
So it is with the United States government. Throughout its long and growing history, the US government has offered and implemented any number of well-intentioned programs only to prove to be its own kind of “fumble fingers.” Unfortunately, when the government drops or breaks something, the consequences are far more severe than a chipped saucer, and America seems to stumble even more frequently than our old caretaker Margaret.
There are stories of $500 hammers and $1100 toilet seats that back this up. There is the United States Postal Service, which manages to lose money year after year after year, pretty much for my entire lifetime, all while repeatedly cutting the level and frequency of service. There is the shameful track record of the Veterans Administration in catering to the medical needs of our veterans.
If you followed the news a decade ago, you may recall the name Solyndra. During the Obama administration, the US government decided to pick who would be the winners and who would be the losers in what they described as the emerging field of alternative energy. Pushing the feel-good green energy narrative, the US government chose winners by giving them gazillions of “seed” dollars to kickstart solar and wind energy initiatives that private industry apparently saw weren’t feasible and refused to invest in themselves.
Solyndra became the poster child for this absurdly bad practice. In 2009, the California-based green energy solar panel manufacturer received a $535 million stimulus-funded loan. During a visit to their facility in May of 2010, President Barack Obama proclaimed Solyndra as “leading the way toward a brighter and more prosperous future.” Their executives earned crazy large salaries from the funds provided by you and me. By August of 2011 however, Solyndra shut down, leaving taxpayers on the hook for $535 million in federal loans.” Game over. Money gone. 1,100 people out of work. It seems the “winner” chosen by the government was actually a loser. In the case of the Obama administration, rinse and repeat. They did this same thing with similar outcomes over and over.
In short, if you want something done efficiently, if you want it done well, if you want it done economically, our government is probably not your best choice. Free money is often spent freely whereas private industry, putting its own funds and assets at risk, tends to assess, plan and execute far more efficiently.
The White House and Congress are notoriously slow learners, however. They continue to dip their hands where they don’t belong, even when it is frighteningly obvious their efforts, no matter how well-intentioned, are doomed to fail.
In his effort to save the world, Joe Biden paid workers to stay out of the workforce long after the economic jolt of COVID-19 began to subside. Not only did this prolong the devastation, but President Joe Biden drove up labor costs for every business in America in the process. Simultaneously the Biden administration flooded America with cash, igniting inflation that is the worst since the Jimmy Carter economic policies were in effect.
On Mr. Biden’s first day in office, he canceled the Keystone Pipeline and froze all oil and gas leases on federal lands. We’re told this was to make the world a greener place. It didn’t. Instead, it drove gas prices from $1.89 a gallon at the pump on the day Mr. Biden was elected up to $3.48 a gallon before Russia invaded and to an average well above $4.30 per gallon now. The world still needs oil and gas, it’s just not getting it from the United States. In fact, America, energy independent on the day Biden took office, found itself importing from Russia and begging for help from Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia thanks to his policies.
Congress’ reaction to all this? Democrat Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was quoted last week blaming the evil oil companies for the high prices. “This is a major exploitation of the consumer, because this is a product the consumer must have,” Mrs. Pelosi said during a press briefing in the Capitol. “Again and again we see gas prices rise, sometimes when the cost of oil goes down,” before topping it off with “Price-gouging needs to be stopped.”
To show America how Democrats in Congress are addressing the pain at the pump, House Democrats are voting on legislation that would give Joe Biden’s administration the authority to simply declare oil companies are setting gas and home energy prices at “unconscionably excessive” prices. The government will be able to set gas prices by simply stating that Bobby Joe’s filling station is “exploiting the circumstances related to an energy emergency to increase prices unreasonably.”
There don’t appear to be economic theories or practices that are required, simply the opinion of a bureaucrat. What could possibly go wrong? When politics ignore economic principles, not only do you no longer have anything even remotely resembling a free market economy, you have an impending disaster.
If Joe Biden’s team is going to start determining gas prices, what’s next? The price of water? Steak? Bread? Magazines? Hotel Rooms? Who will determine which items are so essential (and politically vital) that the government must abandon Supply & Demand 101? Who will then decide what price is acceptable? This is a page right out of Venezuela.
Actually, it is also a page out of one of the darker American chapters in history. In 1933, in a panicked reaction to the Great Depression that was ravaging the United States, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act and created the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRB set prices and determined what was “fair” in business. By 1934 American businesses were in full revolt, rapidly realizing the NRA was an absolute mess and by May 1935, the Supreme Court held that the mandatory codes section of NIRA was unconstitutional. End of story.
They say those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. You’d think people as old as Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, both of whom are rumored to have served in Congress during the Franklin Roosevelt administration, would have a clear recollection of just how poorly price controls work. Yet here we are, with both floating the idea that they know better than those who produce commodities like gasoline, what the proper price should be.
Maybe rather than pretending energy companies are the root of all evil, Mr. Biden and Mrs. Pelosi should simply open the spigot, let American oil and gas flow freely and see how well the economy responds. Unlike the ancient and failed history of price controls, one need to look back only three or four years to see how magically free-flowing oil and gas work for the American consumer, for industry, for Wall Street and for the economy as a whole. Everyone wins.
• Tim Constantine is a columnist for the Washington Times.