19 June 2008

My Trip to the Diner

I went to my neighborhood diner today for lunch. You know the place, a family business that’s been around since the Taft administration....all-you-can eat fish on Fridays, and great milk shakes too.

Well, today's hostess looked like Flo from Mel’s Diner—maybe just a little heavier, but the same mannerisms—she might have even called me “hun” when I walked in the door.

I was sitting near the cash register so I could hear Flo talking to one of the regulars. This guy appeared to be about 65-70 and was probably drinking his 37th free coffee refill of the day. Flo said to him, “I hear they’re trying to stop this off-shore oil drilling. We better do it; I need my gas prices to come down.”

The gentleman (we’ll call him Sam, he looked like a Sam), responded by saying, “Yes, we need the oil that’s out there. It might take 2-3 years to see the benefits though.” To which Flo responded, “That’s alright, we need to get it now.” (Clearly I wasn’t taking notes—but that’s close to what was said.)

Now I was totally intrigued by this conversation. These were two regular folks that are probably being hurt by the $4.00 gallon gas prices. Flo and Sam want gas back at $2.00 a gallon. And I am going to assume that these individuals believe there is a solution to this problem. Yes, off-shore drilling could be it. There is oil out there in the ocean—we need to get at it. Just let those oil companies drill and my gas prices will drop.

When I see and hear people like Flo and Sam I get worried—worried that they are prime targets for fear and political demagoguery. And when I hear the misinformation thrown around about off-shore drilling, I really get scared. Flo and Sam believe in this solution because they have to believe it. If they don’t, if they instead chose to see how complex and nuanced this energy crisis really is—it would be pretty damned depressing.

The Republicans play on these fears and I think this is an issue they will try and exploit in the next 5 months. John McCain is going to say he will lower the price of gas. Yes, he will be lying—but people like Flo and Sam need to imagine that this crisis might be short-term.

But we know it’s demagoguery. Today’s New York Times editorial said it best, “It’s was almost inevitable that a combination of $4-a-gallon gas, public anxiety and politicians eager to win votes or repair legacies would produce political pandering on an epic scale.” (Read the whole editorial if you have time, it's very informative).

The Times labels the Bush drilling proposal a “dumb idea” that is “cruelly misleading” and sites the Energy Information Organization as estimating that if the off-shore coasts were opened, “prices would not begin to drop until 2030.”

I hope Senator Obama and other Democrats are ready to take on this pandering. They need to be prepared because the public wants to believe there are ready solutions. We should be honest with them—but sometimes, that isn’t the best political solution is it?

Flo and Sam's conversation also made me think about my immediate response. Should I have said something, should I have given them a copy of the New York Times article which I had with me? Probably neither would have been a good idea. The St. Paul diner crowd don’t need a lecture from a liberal college professor.

But it does make me want to keep blogging, and talking to people when I have the chance, and educating students and the public on these knotty issues. Sometimes the solutions aren't what Flo and Sam want to hear, but I think they can accept the consequences if talked to honestly. At least I hope that's the case.