Friday, February 24, 2012

Sound Bitten

Once upon a time, back when the economy had just begun it's fall off a cliff and the politics of Hope and Change were still fresh in the air, Stephen Chu told the Wall Street Journal that he wanted to coax Americans into buying more fuel-efficient cars and living closer to where they worked. It might be worthwhile to point out that the massive run-up in housing prices had pushed many people to "drive until they qualified," buying homes way out in the boondocks in order to be able to afford their dream homes. Along with this, American automakers (and some imports besides) had taken to banking on the profits that came from big, gas-guzzling "Sport Utility" Vehicles. In Europe, it was different. It's not considered sensible to live an hour and a half or more away from one's workplace, and drive in alone in a vehicle large enough to pack the whole family off for a week's vacation.

How to push Americans to behave more like Europeans? "Somehow we have to figure out how to boost the price of gasoline to the levels in Europe," said Mr. Chu, then the director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, to the Wall Street Journal.

Somewhere, unbeknownst to Mr. Chu (although perhaps not to the reporter interviewing him) a Republican was gleefully rubbing their hands together, practically salivating at the chance to use Mr. Chu's words as a weapon. It was a bifecta - Chu was both advocating that Americans should live more like the reviled "Europeans," who were disdained even before they questioned the wisdom of American military adventurism, and that they should pay more at the pump - sucking money out of the hands of hardworking families in the name of Liberal social engineering - something easily reworked into an attack on "freedom." (Which, for many Republicans, appears to be the ability to do anything one pleases that doesn't relate to casual sex, any other activity that appeals to the urban poor or implies tolerance of any faith other than cherry-picked Evangelical Christianity.)

It's the sentence that just won't die. It's popped up in Republican talking points every time gas prices have gone up - trotted out as proof that Democrats don't love America as much as they should.

And, like any good sound-bite, it's become completely divorced from any greater context and attached to anything that helps score partisan points. David Harsanyi, in an article posted in Reason magazine, accuses President Obama of making policy decisions geared towards making now Secretary of Energy Chu's statement come true, despite the fact that Candidate Obama said of the proposal when it was floated "that a heightened gas tax would be a 'mistake' because it would put 'additional burdens on American families right now.'" Harsanyi offers no evidence that the President has ever decided to implement Chu's idea - it appears that the simple act of elevating Secretary Chu to his post is proof enough of his bad intent. Never mind that other advisers to then candidate Obama had come out against the idea.

But articles like Harsanyi's, which doesn't reference the source of the quote, also serve another purpose. They become primary sources for others, who can point to Mr. Chu's quote, point out the fact that he's now Secretary of Energy and leave it to readers to infer (perhaps with no small amount of motivation to do so) that a statement given to a reporter nearly four years ago has been morphed into government policy. This cartoon does a particularly good job of this - showing President Obama (presumably) holding up Chu's statement and shouting "Yes, we can!" at a hapless driver filling his gas tank. To be fair, I can't say that Harsanyi's article is the inspiration for McKee's cartoon, but they both make the same point - that the President has signed on to Chu's desire to see American change their driving habits and lifestyles by artificially driving up the cost of fuel.

Had Stephen Chu realized where his statement was going to lead, he likely would have kept his mouth shut. And, believe it or not, that's bad. The marketplace of ideas doesn't work well when people don't bring their ideas to market. We can, and given our current lifestyle habits likely will, decide that we'd rather not have the switch to smaller urban homes and fuel-efficient cars driven by government policy. Perhaps we'd rather wait for the market to force things in that direction - in the meantime, holding out hope that some energy miracle will come along and inject new life into suburban sprawl and beefy personal vehicles. These things are fine, even if the experts tell us that they won't work. Democracy is nothing if not the right of large numbers of people to all agree to act in the current self-interests. And for all we pretend that some shadowy cabal somewhere is calling all the shots, public opinion is a powerful thing, and one that politicians truly ignore only at great risk.

But we've allowed ourselves to become insecure, and needy of anyone who enters the public sphere to parrot our ideas back at us. And we're quick to sense rejection and animosity in any perceived failure to do so. This allows partisan activists, like modern-day Richelieus to scour the words of anyone of even small prominence on the other side for something in them to have him hanged. This forces public political discourse into the narrow confines of bland statements nearly devoid of any real meaning. Everything worth saying moves behind closed doors, confirming the suspicions of the public that they've been shut out of a discussion that will have serious consequences for them.

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