"I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore," said Hadley.

"You say that every week," I told him.

"This time I'm serious. Did you see that all the oil companies made billions of dollars this quarter?"

I said, "Why does that surprise you? Oil is the mother's milk of capitalism. We shouldn't begrudge them an opportunity to make a few bucks when they have a chance."

Hadley said, "I'm not talking about gas for my car -- I'm talking about oil for my furnace. Every time I turn on the television, someone tells me I am going to freeze to death this winter."

"They only tell you that to get your attention. The president of the United States isn't going to let anyone freeze to death. That's why he's the president. He has a plan to make sure all Americans are warm."

Hadley said, "I know I shouldn't say bad things about the president because people will think I'm a Democrat. But he has no control over the oil companies. They're a monopoly, and if they decide you have to turn down your thermostats, you'd better well turn them down. The only alternative is to buy all the sweaters you can afford.

"I'm not a communist," he went on, "but can you tell me why, when one oil supplier raises its price, the other companies raise theirs on the very same day?"

"It is accidental," I said. "The one thing our government assures us is that the oil companies are not in collusion. We have antitrust lawyers who see that they compete against each other."

"Balderdash," Hadley said. "When it comes to fixing oil and gas prices, the Justice Department is out to lunch."

"All right, Hadley, I'll tell you why the companies want to make so much money. It's to spread cheer among the stockholders. If you own a piece of an oil company, you want the companies to make as much money as they possibly can."

Hadley said, "Don't give me that widows-and-orphans line. Most of the stock is owned by mutual funds, pension plans and institutions. The only thing the stockholders demand is profits, and if they don't make obscene ones, the executives are thrown out the window with golden parachutes."

I said, "Despite what they say, Hadley, you are not going the freeze this winter. There is even a safety net for poor people. If they can prove they are really cold (frostbite is a good test), they'll be entitled to oil stamps."

Hadley said, "All right, as long as we're discussing profits, let's talk about bird flu. When they aren't warning about you freezing to death, they're talking about flu from Asia. If it hits the country, it can cause a pandemic."

"You scare too easily."

"Suppose you're freezing because you don't have enough oil. Won't that make it easier to get sick from a chicken?"

"It has to be an infected one."

"Once again it's all about profits. They tell us there's not enough vaccine to go around. You know why? The drug companies can't make enough money. If they can't sell it for three times what it cost them to produce, they're not interested."

I said, "We may not have enough vaccine now, but someday we will. Will you still be mad as hell?"

"Of course."

(c) 2005 Tribune Media Services