Bush offers more half-finished energy thoughts

Bob Tippee

An important tool of politics is the half-finished thought.

US President George W. Bush deploys it masterfully when he discusses oil.

Who can forget his state-of-the-union diagnosis that the US is addicted to oil?

That was half a thought. If a nation can be said to be addicted to a commodity because it uses a lot of it, then the US also is addicted to wheat, corn, beef, various metals, and so forth.

The president didn't finish the thought because doing so would have crushed the political point he wanted to make.

He repeated the ploy in his Aug. 21 press conference.

Asked what political price he might be paying because of American impatience with elevated gasoline prices, Bush stammered his way to this: "I understand gas prices are like a hidden tax. Not a hidden tax, it's a tax—it's taking money out of people's pockets. I know that. All the more reason for us to diversify away from crude oil."

Wheat prices sometimes rise and make the price of bread increase. The increase takes money out of people's pockets. Does such an increase also constitute a tax?

In fact, there's an important difference between taxes and increases in commodity prices. Politicians control taxes. They don't control commodity prices and shouldn't try to do so.

So Bush's thought on oil prices as taxes was both wrong to begin with and incomplete. It didn't own up to the inability of government to do anything constructive about high gasoline prices.

A larger omission looms invisibly behind the president's assertion that high gasoline prices give reason to "diversify away from crude oil."

A complete statement of Bush's argument would read something like this: "Because high gasoline prices act like a tax, the US should diversify away from crude oil to more expensive and less plentiful energy forms that cannot compete without tax breaks, which must be funded by higher taxes."

At the press conference, Bush even pointed to tax credits for hybrid vehicles and the push for fuel ethanol, which of course claims a huge tax credit.

There were no follow-up questions.

(Online Aug. 25, 2006; author's e-mail: bobt@ogjonline.com)

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