HERE'S ANOTHER bone for the conspiratorialists to chew on. Is it only a matter of chance that James Reston's home in Washington is practically surrounded by those of people with strong connections to the oil industry? His neighbors include Frank Ikard, the longtime oil lobbyist, Lloyd Bentsen, a senator from an oil-producing state, Mohammed el Saud, a prince from an oil-producing country, and Douglass Cater, a publisher who is bankrolled by an oil company. My guess is that while a bit of design may have been involved, chance was the main factor. But the thing about Northwest Washington is that it lends itself to such accidents, and the results of the accidents are often little different from what would have been produced by deliberate comspiracy. Reston no doubt is immune to such influences, but the average journalist, even if he disagrees with the lobbyist next door, may be reluctant to write anything that would offend the neighbor who takes care of his children when he's away.
There are other, equally subtle influences on Washington reporters. For example, I suspect their membership in a white-collar union, the Newspaper Guild, has a lot to do with their lack of outrage at the excesses of other white-collar workers, including the incredible overpayment of many federal employes and the quaint quit-at-3:15 custom of the District of Columbia's public school teachers.
Yet another subtle influence, one that makes itself felt every four years, springs from the desire to have an interesting presidential race to report. This tends to produce undue tenderness toward the candidate who seems to have the potential for making things interesting. Jimmy Carter was the beneficiary of this tendency in 1975-76, just as Teddy Kennedy is today. When this tendency on the part of the journalist combines with the public's desire for a leader-hero and the politicians' desire for a candidate with strong coattails, we have a serious problem, for they all add up to an awful lot of people who have an interest in either suppressing or not hearing unpleasant truths about the candidate. Recently, for example, I published something fairly harsh in The washington Monthly about Teddy Kennedy's compulsive drinking and womanizing. People jumped all over me. I had published the same thing three years ago - when there was no need for Teddy to be a hero - and no one said a word.
One more subtle influence, and it is one that has been devastating in its effect this year, is the journalist's fear of making a fool of himself by taking on the experts.The reporting of inflation and energy has therefore consisted of almost no fresh analysis by reporters, but of confusing quotation of apparently contradictory arguments and alleged facts. Because of their fear, reporters have missed the following important stories about Jimmy Carter and energy and inflation.
Jimmy Carter may go down in history as The Great Stapler. You recall, of course, his foreign policy speech in Annapolis in 1978, when he stapled together Brzezinski's hawkish and Vance's dovish drafts. His energy policy is another staple job, combining higher prices with contradictory pleas for conservation. He urges us to achieve "energy independence" by using less energy while paying more for it to provide an incentive for domestic producers of oil and other fuels.
Truly effective conservation would decrease demand and lower prices. The public senses, if it does not perfectly understand, this contradiction and concludes that the president doesn't know what he is doing.
All the schemes for attaining energy independence accept today's inflation, acceding to the prices OPEC has set and, if anything, contemplating further price increases and further inflation to inspire greater effort from the domestic producers of energy.In effect, we are telling OPEC, "You almost wrecked the world economy in 1973-74, you may be wrecking it now, and all we're going to do is make sure you don't do it a third time."
I think we can do better than that. I don't want to give in to OPEC and to inflation. I want to fight, not with guns but with the same kind of economic weapons OPEC has used against us.
An administration truly concerned about inflation would be finding ways of bringing the price of Arab oil down - not taking the OPEC price for granted and spending billions to produce "synthetic fuels" at $40 a barrel. It would not embark on a plan to use up America's remaining oil reserves. Rather it would try to use the Arabs' oil now, saving ours for the long term when there may be a real crunch.
The key fact about oil is that the Saudis can produce it for less than 50 cents a barrel - much, much less than it costs us to produce oil, or any other form of energy for that matter. Generally it makes sense for a country to produce what it can produce more economically than other countries and to buy from the others what they produce more economically than it. This was one of the sounder points Adam Smith had in mind when he wrote "The Wealth of Nations" in 1776, and it remains true today. So until the price of producing Arab oil begins to exceed the cost of producing energy here, shouldn't we buy Arab oil? The answer would clearly be "yes" if the Arabs had not formed a cartel called OPEC and used it to get high prices for their low-cost oil.
How can we counter the cartel? The same way we deal with anyone who is charging us too much: Refuse to buy until the price is lowered. We are now the biggest buyer of oil in the world. Big customers, as any businessman knows, have muscle.
But we have so feared another embargo by the Arabs that we have failed to consider the delicious potential of laying an embargo on them. Even short-term withdrawal from the world market by the United States should lower prices dramatically.
But can we stop using Arab oil - even for a few months? Obviously, voluntary conservation has not worked. It arouses everyone's fear of being the sucker, the person who sacrifices while his neighbors fill up their gas-guzzlers. But a fair program of gas rationing - one that would hold consumption to the oil we can produce ourselves - would mean that nobody would be a sucker and that we would all be working together to break the cartel and halt the inflationary spiral that has begun to terrify reasonable men everywhere.
We now import 47 percent of the oil we use. During World War II rationing cut the use of gasoline and fuel oil by 50 percent. The average consumption per passenger car fell from 607 gallons a year in 1941 to 416 in 1943. Total private auto consumption went down from 18 billion gallons a year to 10.8 billion.
Will the country accept rationing? Isn't the America of today - with its bumbling bureaucracy and with its people, fragmented into selfish groups, feeling powerless and pessimistic - far different from the America of World War II?
Maybe so, but I don't want to give in to that view any more than I want to give in to OPEC.
The evidence - to the extent that public opinion can provide it - is that the people are way ahead of the politicians. They see inflation as the nation's number one problem and they are ready to accept gas rationing as a solution. The people should be listened to. They should be involved.
The amount of gas we received under war-time rationing, it is good to remember, was determined not by the bureaucrats in the Office of Price Administration, but by 5,600 local boards of volunteers who knew the needs of their neighbors. So rationing does not have to mean another chance for the Department of Energy to demonstrate its ineptitude. What it can mean is the restoration of power to the people, the power to defeat the enemy they fear the most - inflation.