Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Addiction and Hope

President Bush said in the State of the Union address yesterday that America is addicted to oil. This is like the world's worst heroin addict blaming everyone else for his problem. Surely if there's ever been a poster-boy for the caption, "Addicted to Oil," it is George W. Bush. If Bush had said these words four years ago and actually meant them, there would never have been an Iraq war. If he means them now, then he's announcing that every single thing about his personal beliefs, his way of life, his governing philosophy, the friends and associates he has kept for life, is completely wrong. For these words to be true, Bush would have to immediately fire everyone in his administration. He would have to renounce his family fortune. He would have to become a totally different person. So we know that Bush doesn't really mean what he says, which shouldn't come as a surprise.

Of all the rich ironies in Bush's statement, I would like to focus on only one. During the speech Bush gave his impressions on the economy and he revealed that his is a pro-growth philosophy. Bush is a firm believer in the age-old capitalist principle of eternally expanding markets. For Bush, growth is the single condition which best defines national and economic well-being. So Bush is proud that the American economy has kept on growing during his Presidency. But, why has it been growing? What does it actually mean when "the economy" (which is an abstraction) "grows" (which is a metaphor?) The answer to that question deserves a great deal of further study but one very plausible, consensus answer might be "consumption." The American economy is powered by the American consumer. In fact, this is an understatement. Americans consume far, far more than we produce. The evidence of this is the trade deficit, which for the year 2005 is believed to have reached a record high of $710 billion. No other global economy has ever worked this way before. Industrialization, not consumption, has always been the key to global dominance. The current state of affairs - what appears to be American prosperity - is really a bubble sustained by foreign investors who accept less than market value for their investments solely for the privilege of being associated with the world's only economic superpower. So our current prosperity is really based on reputation more than performance. The economy continues to grow because Americans consume so much, and we can afford to do so because our habits are being financed by overseas investors in China, India, and Europe. This appears to be a classic case of what goes up must come down. Eventually, the economic balance will tilt back towards production, and when that happens, it will be the producing nations who find themselves in control.

But I want to get back to my point about the President's remarks. My point is that American prosperity as Bush defines it - his fideist belief in continuous, eternal growth - is precisely our addiction to oil. There is no difference. Back in 1973, America imported 35% of its oil. By 2003, that had increased to 55%. Where does Bush think American prosperity comes from? It comes from ever greater consumption of the world's energy supply. It comes from Americans driving more, eating more, buying more cars, building more homes, consuming more media, and fighting more wars than ever before. This truth is not lost on the energy industry. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, for one, chastised the President after his speech with this statement: “As bad as the policies proposed by President Bush are, the addiction rhetoric is much worse. President Bush might as well have said, ‘we're addicted to prosperity, comfort, and mobility, and I've got the policies to do something about it."

Yet oil is really not even the tip of the iceberg. If Bush really was serious about curbing America's dependence on foreign energy, he would have to tell us to change our entire way of life, our whole way of viewing ourselves in relation to the rest of the world. We would have to own fewer cars, build smaller homes, drive less, eat less, and stop fighting so many wars. This would cause a great deal of change in the world. For one thing, the American economy would slow considerably. (The American waistline, which has followed a parallel destiny, would also slim down!) The character of the economy would also change, as the balance would begin to tilt away from consumption and towards production. American life would be much less dominated by media, as we would have fewer dollars to spend on entertainment, and much more focused on craftsmanship. Doing more with less, the hallmark of virtue for millennia, would come back into style. Also, terrorists would stop attacking us, as our aggressive expansion into foreign lands would greatly decrease.

Taking the President at his word might seem like too much to ask, and the hypothetical sacrifice, too great to bear. Yet, there are no real alternatives. Our current lucky state of prosperity will not last for much longer. Reducing our consumption would be painful, but not as painful as the crisis which will inevitably befall us if we continue in our present path. America really is addicted, but it is an addiction to a base and corrupt set of values and a consequently unsustainable way of life. The President may not have meant his words truthfully, but he knows of what he speaks: every addict must eventually face the necessity of change. And every addict has the hope of grace.