Gas Taxes & Strawberry Statements

A favorite book of mine has always been James Simon Kunen’s account of his experiences as a student at Columbia, especially during the 1968 student uprising and takeover of administration buildings. The Strawberry Statement was one of my favorite books as a young high school and college student. It’s a great meditation on how events, even major ones like the Vietnam War and a campus riot, effect ordinary people. Kunen even referred to himself as a “single revolutionary digit.”

The current brouhaha over the Clinton-McCain gas tax holiday reminds me of two points in Kunen’s book. The title of the book was a reference to a statement made by a Dean at Columbia. Dean Herbert Deane allegedly said that students’ opinions about University policy had as much effect on his thinking as if the students told him they enjoyed eating strawberries. In other words, their opinions were irrelevant. Hillary Clinton’s “Strawberry Statement” is her recent declaration that she didn’t care if not one professional economist could be found to ratify the fiscal sanity of the gas tax holiday: “I’m not going to throw my lot in with economists.”

So now Hillary has changed the rationale for her campaign. Out is Hillary’s earnest appeal to well thought-out policy (as opposed to Obama’s ethereal and detached rhetoric). Clinton’s new rationale is her steadfast support of real folks, despite what those elitist always-did-their-homework-on-Friday-nights economists think.

Clinton justifies her position by declaring that a lot of well-thought out policy (and a lot of awful Bush policy) does nothing but make it harder for middle class families to eke out a living. This reminds me of another thought from Kunen’s book. During the disturbances at Columbia classes were cancelled and radical activists started offering “liberation classes”, sort of glorified teach-ins. Kunen mused that liberation classes weren’t going to do any good for say, the student studying classical music. Kunen noted that a lot of people get screwed by events over which they have little control and no say.

Clinton is correct when she notes that middle class families are being screwed and often public policy does nothing to help them, and possibly makes their problems worse. However, even the beleaguered middle class doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Their lives exist in a world of choices and decisions. Real leadership often requires elected officials to tell people that the decisions they have made cannot be sustained if the entire nation is to prosper.

America cannot continue to claim 25% of the world’s non-renewable energy resources. America cannot expect to see oil prices significantly decrease in a world where oil company production is falling every year and demand is booming due to the increase in the number of motorists in India and China. It is irresponsible and the opposite of leadership to tell middle class families driving SUV’s and living in the sprawl cities of the exurbs that their way of life (dependent on cheap gas) is in any way sustainable. Minimize the damage now instead of kicking the can down the road.

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