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Jewish World Review Sept. 28, 2000 / 28 Elul, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Just what we love: Another cheap political ploy -- IT MAY or may not be a good idea to start releasing oil from the country's Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The administration's decision to dip into the country's emergency stockpile might let the international oil cartel know that it can't exploit American consumers forever, at least not without our trying to add some supply to temper the cost of demand.

More likely, the release will prove just a drop in the barrel. The gesture may only deepen the cartel's contempt for Americans hooked on its oil. We might as well be an addict trying to threaten our supplier by dipping into our own meager little stash.

Dipping into the country's oil reserves would have been a better idea a year ago, when oil was cheaper, and when releasing a small -- indeed, insignificant -- amount of the stockpile wasn't so transparent an election-year ploy on Al Gore's part.

But when it comes to exploiting gullible Americans, the oil sheiks ain't got nothin' on our own vice president. By now he must have demagogued every issue in sight. At last count, he was running against Big Oil, Big Drugs, Big HMOs and Big Everything except, of course, his answer to just about any problem: Big Government.

Al Gore's latest quick fix is no solution. It's only an attempt to exploit the problem. It's hard to believe the American voter won't see through his latest bit of demagoguery. Then again, all his others seem to have worked:

He attacks the country's Health Maintenance Organizations, which may need some attacking, but he offers no real improvement except one big centralized HMO -- the federal government's. Talk about a cure worse than the disease. This is like adopting HillaryCare one bureaucratic step at a time.

Literally sick and awfully tired of dealing with those anonymous voices over the phone who decide whether your HMO will cover you?

Then try dealing with a federal bureaucrat instead. At least the HMOs have competition; there's only one federal government. And the HCFA, the government's Health Care Finance Administration, is the biggest HMO there is.

But you ain't heard nothin' yet. Al Gore also offers the elderly coverage for prescription drugs. No need to go into detail about just how much that kind of universal insurance would cost them ($600 a head by 2008).

And now, after eight years without an energy policy, the administration's No. 2 man blames Big Oil for the price of gas and heating oil -- instead of a big government that managed to ignore the problem till 46 days before a presidential election. What a coincidence.

George W. Bush's response to the oil squeeze (or almost anything else) isn't nearly as simplistic. He would use the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a strategic petroleum reserve, not a political ploy. He'd concentrate on increasing domestic oil production and pressing our Arab allies to act like allies.

There's nothing instant about the solutions W. proposes; they're long-term. They amount to an economic policy, not a political ploy. And they would require patience and realism, even some planning and a basic understanding of how markets work.

But there's not much of a market for such qualities in an election year. If we must have patience, we want it, like our oil and gas, right now!

Talk about right now. Bill Clinton wasted no time following the lead of his heir (ever more) apparent. Within 24 hours after his vice president suggested it, the president moved to release 30 million barrels of oil from the country's emergency stockpile. Nothing seems to concentrate Bill Clinton's mind like an upcoming election.

It may sound like a lot, but the release of 30 million barrels of oil amounts to little more than a gesture; this country consumes some 18 million barrels of oil every day. The benefit of such policy is mainly political: Tapping the petroleum reserve might hide the essential problem -- the lack of a real energy policy -- until election day. After that, who cares?

"This is not political,'' says the secretary of energy. Right. And it don't rain in Indianapolis.

That's the same secretary of energy, Bill Richardson, who's done such a bang-up job protecting the country's nuclear secrets. And the same secretary of energy who, just a few months ago, was explaining why releasing oil from the strategic reserve would be a bad idea. So was Al Gore. But that was then, and this is the home stretch of a presidential campaign.

Lest we forget, this is the same Al Gore who, in his magnum opus, "Earth in the Balance,'' denounced the internal combustion engine as "a mortal threat to the security of every nation more deadly than that of any military enemy we are ever again likely to confront.'' Weird.

But this being an election year, he's just come out for a right to drive, and on cheap gas, too: "People should be able to get in their cars and drive where they want, when they want, at a low price.'' -- Al Gore, September 21, 2000.

Is anything the man says not political? But we have the administration's word that this latest political move isn't a political move. Our current president would probably take an oath on it.

This isn't political? If voters believe that, they'll believe anything. And they do. They seem to believe Al Gore, don't they?

Paul Greenberg Archives


©2000, Los Angeles Times Syndicate