Obama's the first Democrat to face down rising gas prices in an election year since Carter. But he has advantages his unfortunate predecessor didn't.
Cars line up for gasoline during the 1979 fuel shortage / Image: Wikipedia
Gas prices are up, and there's a Democrat in the Oval Office seeking reelection. What year is it?
For Politico, 2012 is 1980 all over again, and the newspaper is now pondering whether President Obama will end up "owning" high gas prices much the way Jimmy Carter did by the end of his term in the White House.
It's certainly possible that, as fuel costs inevitably rise in the coming months, enough cash-strapped voters will start casting blame on the president to cripple his reelection chances. You never know. But economically, comparing Carter's dire predicament, which he notoriously mishandled, with Obama's is silly, in part because you can't look at gas prices in a vacuum. The late 1970s were an economic nightmare in which fuel costs were one of several scourges. Today, we're looking at a strengthening recovery that's better equipped to withstand a bit of pain at the pump.
Here are four big reasons to ignore those Carter comparisons:
No. 1: The U.S. isn't in a fight to the death with inflation
If there's a single graph that captures the misery of America's economy in the 1970s and early 1980s, it's the one below. That blue line? It's the non-core inflation rate, which includes the cost of goods like food and energy which get left out of other measures. Notice that in late 1978, when the Iranian revolution helped send oil prices soaring, prices were already rising at more than 7 percent a year. U.S. policy makers had been trying and failing to slay inflation for most of the decade, and the sudden shock of high oil prices helped set the rate completely out of control. Expensive crude made gas, as well as consumer goods, more expensive. That sent workers bargaining for higher wages, which made prices to rise further. Presto chango: an inflationary spiral.
But it got worse. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker's early, haphazard attempts to slow down runaway prices and save the value of the dollar led to sky high interest rates, which sent the economy tumbling into recession by the summer of 1980 -- right in the middle of Carter's re-election campaign. By July, unemployment topped out at 7.9 percent (it eventually dropped back to 7.1 percent by November).
Today, inflation is just about dead last on America's list of potential economic problems. Workers also aren't in much of a position to bargain for higher pay based on their weekly gas tab. So high gas prices aren't going to lead to the same terrifying wage-price spiral that, along with some clumsy tinkering by the Fed, demolished the economy under Carter.
No. 2: We don't have ridiculous regulations on selling gas
The long lines of drivers waiting outside gas stations for a chance to fill up might be the iconic image of Carter-era economic malaise. But the gas shortages that yielded those lines weren't a direct result of high prices. Rather, they were the produced of an ill-designed system of price and distribution controls, which led gas stations to sell off what limited fuel they had on a first-come-first-serve basis, then close up shop early. To get a sense of how horribly the government's regulation distorted the market for gasoline, check out this 1979 paper from the Brookings Institute. Among their myriad unintended consequences, the controls actually made it more profitable for refineries to stash away gasoline supplies and sell them at a later date, even if there was an immediate shortage. Thankfully, those kinds of regulations went out of style along with disco.
No. 3: Iran (probably) isn't going to stop selling oil
One of the eeriest similarities between today and the Carter era is the role Iran is playing in sending up gas prices. Then, it was fallout from the Iranian revolution. Today, it's uncertainty generated by U.S. and European attempts to stop Tehran's nuclear program. But there are big, gaping differences between the challenges of of 33 years ago and today.
In December of 1978, following the revolution, Iran's new leaders halted all oil shipments (they resumed a small amount the following March). At the time, the country was the world's second largest oil exporter. The market panicked, and the price of crude increased 150 percent over the coming year. Gasoline prices followed, jumping 55 percent in six months.
The current confrontation between Iran and the West is scary, yes. But unless it erupts into outright war, chances are we won't see similar supply disruptions compared to what happened in 1979. The U.S. has levied sanctions on Tehran aimed at limiting it's ability to sell oil. But as I wrote yesterday, they're not intended to take all of their crude off the market. Iran, for its part, is reportedly so desperate to to sell oil that it's offering barter deals.
No. 4: We're used to high gas prices
There's no question about it: When oil prices rise rapidly, they can hurt the economy. But when it comes to determining just how bad the damage will be, it's important to look at where oil prices have been in the recent past. James Hamilton, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, has come up with a formula for doing this that I call the rule of three. He's found that when oil prices quickly spike to a new three-year high, they can cause a damaging shock to the economy. That's because both businesses and consumers suddenly have to rapidly adjust their budgets, and often drastically cut spending. The rule of three is not a hard and fast law, but more a decent rule of thumb. It happens to describe what happened in 1979 fairly well. At the time, the only frame of reference anybody had for an oil crisis was the 1973 OPEC embargo. Nobody expected a repeat.
While oil prices are rising pretty quickly today, they're still close to where they reached during the Libyan revolution last year. They could go higher -- I'm not going to try and predict -- but at this point, even if it's painful, most Americans have an idea of how to cope with higher fuel costs. Back in 1979, it was still relatively new and frightening. Today, it's old hat.
The revolutionary ideals of Black Panther’s profound and complex villain have been twisted into a desire for hegemony.
The following article contains major spoilers.
Black Panther is a love letter to people of African descent all over the world. Its actors, its costume design, its music, and countless other facets of the film are drawn from all over the continent and its diaspora, in a science-fiction celebration of the imaginary country of Wakanda, a high-tech utopia that is a fictive manifestation of African potential unfettered by slavery and colonialism.
But it is first and foremost an African American love letter, and as such it is consumed with The Void, the psychic and cultural wound caused by the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the loss of life, culture, language, and history that could never be restored. It is the attempt to penetrate The Void that brought us Alex Haley’s Roots, that draws thousands of African Americans across the ocean to visit West Africa every year, that left me crumpled on the rocks outside the Door of No Return at Gorée Island’s slave house as I stared out over a horizon that my ancestors might have traversed once and forever. Because all they have was lost to The Void, I can never know who they were, and neither can anyone else.
In Cyprus, Estonia, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere, passports can now be bought and sold.
“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means,” the British prime minister, Theresa May, declared in October 2016. Not long after, at his first postelection rally, Donald Trump asserted, “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.” And in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has increased his national-conservative party’s popularity with statements like “all the terrorists are basically migrants” and “the best migrant is the migrant who does not come.”
Citizenship and its varying legal definition has become one of the key battlegrounds of the 21st century, as nations attempt to stake out their power in a G-Zero, globalized world, one increasingly defined by transnational, borderless trade and liquid, virtual finance. In a climate of pervasive nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia, and ever-building resentment toward those who move, it’s tempting to think that doing so would become more difficult. But alongside the rise of populist, identitarian movements across the globe, identity itself is being virtualized, too. It no longer needs to be tied to place or nation to function in the global marketplace.
Is a lack of meaning really worse than a lack of freedom?
A man named François is a professor in Paris. He is a scholar of Joris-Karl Huysmans, an obscure 19th-century author who, in his later years, converted to Catholicism in an epiphany. François is the hero, or rather anti-hero, of French novelist Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. François is listless—even his attitude toward sex is uninspired, as if it’s an activity like any other, perhaps like playing tennis on a Sunday, but probably with less excitement. There is too much freedom and too many choices, and sometimes he’d rather just die.
The world around him, though, is changing. It is 2022. After a charismatic Islamist wins the second round of the French presidential elections against the right-wing Marine Le Pen (after gaining the support of the Socialists), a Muslim professor, himself a convert, attempts to persuade François to make the declaration of faith. “It’s submission,” the professor tells him. “The shocking and simple idea, which had never been so forcefully expressed, that the summit of human happiness resides in the most absolute submission.”
A week after 17 people were murdered in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, teenagers across South Florida, in areas near Washington, D.C., and in other parts of the United States walked out of their classrooms to stage protests against the horror of school shootings and to advocate for gun law reforms.
A week after 17 people were murdered in a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, teenagers across South Florida, in areas near Washington, D.C., and in other parts of the United States walked out of their classrooms to stage protests against the horror of school shootings and to advocate for gun law reforms. Student survivors of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School traveled to their state Capitol to attend a rally, meet with legislators, and urge them to do anything they can to make their lives safer. These teenagers are speaking clearly for themselves on social media, speaking loudly to the media, and they are speaking straight to those in power—challenging lawmakers to end the bloodshed with their “#NeverAgain” movement.
The justice’s consistent pro-gun arguments fail to reconcile rights with their lived consequences.
Never let it be said that Justice Clarence Thomas is overly concerned with appearances. Witness his release of a passionately pro-gun opinion, less than a week after a school shooting took 17 lives at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
As near as I can tell, only two subjects excite this most phlegmatic of justices: the death penalty and the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms.” I was present in Court two years ago when Thomas broke his 11-year silence on the bench—to ask Assistant U.S. Solicitor General Ilana Eisenstein why a misdemeanor conviction for domestic abuse should deprive the abuser of the right to possess firearms: “Can you think of another constitutional right that can be suspended based upon a misdemeanor violation of a state law?”
The path to its revival lies in self-sacrifice, and in placing collective interests ahead of the narrowly personal.
The death of liberalism constitutes the publishing world’s biggest mass funeral since the death of God half a century ago. Some authors, like conservative philosopher Patrick Deneen, of Why Liberalism Failed, have come to bury yesterday’s dogma. Others, like Edward Luce (The Retreat of Western Liberalism), Mark Lilla (The Once and Future Liberal), and Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (How Democracies Die) come rather to praise. I’m in the latter group; the title-in-my-head of the book I’m now writing is What Was Liberalism.
But perhaps, like God, liberalism has been buried prematurely. Maybe the question that we should be asking is not what killed liberalism, but rather, what can we learn from liberalism’s long story of persistence—and how can we apply those insights in order to help liberalism write a new story for our own time.
Here are some readers with extra elements on this discussion—political, cultural, international. First, an American reader on the interaction of current concepts of masculinity and the nearly all-male population of mass gun murderers:
The president’s son is selling luxury condos and making a foreign-policy speech.
Who does Donald Trump Jr. speak for?
Does the president’s son speak for the Trump Organization as he promotes luxury apartments in India? Does he speak for himself when he dines with investors in the projects? Does he speak for the Trump administration as he makes a foreign-policy speech in Mumbai on Friday?
“When these sons go around all over the world talking about, one, Trump business deals and, two, … apparently giving speeches on some United States government foreign policy, they are strongly suggesting a linkage between the two,” Richard Painter, President George W. Bush’s chief ethics lawyer who is a professor of law at the University of Minnesota, told me. “Somebody, somewhere is going to cross the line into suggesting a quid pro quo.”
Outside powers have been central to the nuclear crisis—but for a few peculiar weeks in February.
Of all the arguments in favor of allowing North Korea to leap into the spotlight with South Korea at the Winter Olympics—what with its deceptively smiley diplomats and even more smiley cheerleaders and the world’s most celebrated winless hockey team—one hasn’t received much attention. “It’s tragic that people of shared history, blood, language, and culture have been divided through geopolitics of the superpowers,” Talia Yoon, a resident of Seoul, toldThe New York Times when the paper asked South Koreans for their thoughts on the rapprochement between North and South Korea at the Olympics. “Neither Korea has ever been truly independent since the division.”
In this telling, having Korean athletes march under a unification flag at the Opening Ceremony and compete jointly in women’s hockey isn’t just about the practical goal of ensuring the Games aren’t disrupted by an act of North Korean aggression, or the loftier objective of seizing a rare opportunity for a diplomatic resolution to the escalating crisis over Kim Jong Un’s nuclear-weapons program. It’s also about Koreans—for a couple surreal weeks in February, at least—plucking some control over that crisis from the superpowers that have been so influential in shaping it over the past year.