It’s exhausting to hear the chattering classes blame our lack of a coherent and forward-thinking energy policy (or just about any other policy) on a broad systemic dysfunction. “The system is not working!” they whimper, shaking their heads in disbelief, saying it’s another example of the decline of sense and civility in our public discourse. Critics rail against policies brazenly favoring the oil industry — tax breaks, subsidies, and a regulatory climate just this side of whoopee — making it sound like environmental degradation was part of the founders’ original intent. This makes the critics one part sad, one part angry, and three parts ripped off, not unlike the way my son Milo behaves when a battery-powered toy craps out at an inopportune moment.
To be honest, I, too, have on occasion found comfort in such facile explanations for the nation’s abject failure to deal with so many glaring problems, including several of interest to readers of car magazines: the pervasive failure to address global warming and finite supplies of fossil fuels; tens of thousands of road fatalities year in and year out; the burgeoning safety risk caused by in-car communications and telematics; the failure to maintain the roads we’ve got while creating better ones and efficient alternatives; and, of course, our continued inability to buy new Peugeots in the United States. (OK, I made up that last one.)
But, of course, it was always thus — the good old days were bad, counterproductive policies prevailed, and politicians always employed civility sparingly. If one takes a step back from the action — or inaction, as it were — you see not that the system isn’t working, but rather that it is working. It’s just that some folks think the system aims to achieve goals that it does not.
Take energy policy. While the Constitution enshrines the pursuit of happiness as a basic right, a long line of Supreme Court rulings has also established the notion of corporate personhood. So, although no one has said before that the pursuit of ExxonMobil’s happiness is a goal of our society, they needn’t bother. Everything ExxonMobil needs done is done. Everything ExxonMobil needs not done is not done. ExxonMobil is our energy policy. If you have a beef with that, you misunderstand the system.
This is why tax breaks abound for oil companies at a time of record profits. It is why natural-gas extraction — the controversial practice known as fracking — has been virtually free of environmental regulation since 2005, and why government-owned car companies get to use taxpayer money to lobby against stricter fuel-economy standards proposed by the government.
If you thought the goal of the system was to keep our air clean and to improve human health, guess again. If you thought the goal was to protect accumulated wealth and nourish the bank accounts of our largest corporations and our military industrial complex, with all the wars that may entail, then go to the head of the class.
And, surely, counterintuitive trends in executive compensation are more proof of the system working as intended. With the American economy still in the dumpster, and with unemployment and pay cuts rampant, what else explains the pay of top auto-industry executives? Results of a survey prepared for Automotive News showed that the median salary of CEOs from thirty-five publicly traded U.S. automakers, dealership groups, suppliers, and automotive-services companies rose 90 percent in 2010.
Take TRW CEO John Plant, whose total compensation of $41.1 million represented a 510 percent increase over the paltry $6.7 million with which he was forced to make do in 2009. Or Ford CEO Alan Mulally, whose 524 percent raise will surely help take his mind off the $14 billion in outstanding debt Ford is still digging out from underneath. Stephen Roell, Johnson Controls? Up 424 percent. (Note to Editor: I will settle for a mere 324 percent raise.)
When this country needed roads so the people would buy more cars, the system gave us roads, and now we’re stuck with our cars. Today, CEOs need tax breaks, which the system has delivered instead of well-maintained roads and bridges. Far from being broken, the system is humming like a well-oiled machine. If only it thought we needed Peugeots.