Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Who's Pump-Priming Now?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Who's Pump-Priming Now?

Article excerpt

BACK in the 1970s, during the first Arab oil embargo, I happened upon an old book at a Salvation Army store in Washington, D.C.

It was called the "War Time Guide Book for the Home." Written in 1942, it showed Americans how to cope with shortages on the home front. Fertilizer or laundry soap, cold cream or toothpaste - the guide told Americans how to make it themselves, out of materials available (back then at least) at hardware stores and pharmacies.

I was struck by how dependent the United States had become since then. Born into the consumption boom that followed the war, I thought that things like laundry soap came from factories by some kind of law. Economists call this "division of labor" progress. But the gas lines stretching out for blocks showed a dark side of this progress. Build an economy on a sense of need - for oil, for example - and scarcity is the inevitable result.

I thought of the "War Time Guide" again during the recent war against Iraq. The conflict showed how far America has drifted from the self-help ethos reflected in that book in the 1940s, when Americans were willing to cut consumption to fight a war. This time the nation fought a war because it wasn't willing to cut consumption, even a little bit.

By one estimate, if the Reagan and Bush administrations had not weakened auto-fuel efficiency standards, the US wouldn't have needed the oil at stake in the Gulf War. Yet even as the saber-rattling resumes there, the administration continues to oppose measures to require cars that burn less gas.

The truly strange part is that this national self-indulgence is carried out in the name of "conservative" government. Call it patriotism if you wish. But conservative?

Not by my grandfather's standards. He was a businessman and a Republican, practical and thrifty to the core. He wore sensible wool suits, even to baseball games at Pittsburgh's old Forbes Field in the afternoon. He didn't believe in borrowing, paid cash for everything he bought, and thought the government should do likewise. Thirteen years of Roosevelt had helped set his face into a dolorous frown. …

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