Energy imports and energy security: a view from 1970

A few weeks back George Schultz posted a few happy memories on a Hoover Institution website from his time heading Nixon’s Cabinet Task Force on Oil Import Control way back in 1969 and 1970. The task force was charged with reviewing the existing mandatory oil import quotas, first imposed under the Eisenhower administration, and recommending reforms if needed

At the AEI Ideas blog, Ben Zycher finds Schultz’s recollections of that effort maddening off point. Zycher concludes there is “something about oil imports or ‘dependence’ that has a deeply corrosive effect on clear thinking, a commodity all too rare in policy discussions generally, and in the Beltway in particular.”

I found a copy of the task force’s report at the library* to see what the fuss was about. Overall the report looks pretty comprehensive, and the process of preparing the report seems open and thorough (Schultz mentions receiving 10,000 pages of comments in response to the task force’s list of questions published in the Federal Register on May 22, 1969, and these were followed by task force site visits and extensive deliberations). The majority on the task force recommended scrapping the import quotas, imposition of a tariff that approximated the difference between the then current domestic and world oil prices, then periodic reductions in the tariff to bring the domestic price down to the world price over time.

I noticed how far from prescient the report was about how world oil markets would actually change during the 1970s. Forecasting being hard, and all that.

At the time the Texas Railroad Commission, with the help of the Interstate Oil Compact, import quotas and other supportive federal policies, limited domestic production to keep crude oil prices up in the U.S. Current oil prices were then around $3.30/bbl in the United States, and the task force’s proposed policy of shifting from import quotas to a slowly declining import tariff was deemed likely to yield prices drifting down to $2 over a decade. A dissenting view, included at the end of the report, objected to the tariff approach on the grounds that the lower prices expected would harm the domestic energy industry and therefore be bad for national security. Things went a little differently.

Of course the text frequently points out the hazards of prediction. Many things could happen, it acknowledged, and the report considered several seemingly-plausible scenarios within which to consider the policy alternatives. In any case, Nixon shelved the task force report, imposed price controls on oil the next year, then as energy shortages loomed in early 1973 he abolished the quota system and implemented an import allocation program to ensure that all regions got (the Nixon administration’s idea of a fair share of) access to cheaper imports.

It was this cumbersome oil import allocation system, combined with continued federal oil price controls, that created an energy crisis out of the sharp boost in world oil prices in late 1973. All in all, the task force’s recommendation would have been superior to Nixon’s actual policies.

*Actually, since I have a great librarian, I just emailed him and was able to pick it up at the library’s front desk the next day. (I could have had it delivered to my office in two or three days, but I’m an impatient person.)

The Defense Authorization Act and unlawful detention

Lynne Kiesling

Have you been paying attention to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that the Senate passed last week? I don’t blame you if you have not heard much about it, since most media have not been covering it. In addition to military expenditure authorization, it includes controversial provisions about the detention of terror suspects; as summarized by Spencer Ackerman at Wired:

But far more dramatically, the detention mandate to use indefinite military detention in terrorism cases isn’t limited to foreigners. It’s confusing, because two different sections of the bill seem to contradict each other, but in the judgment of the University of Texas’ Robert Chesney — a nonpartisan authority on military detention — “U.S. citizens are included in the grant of detention authority.” …

So despite the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of a right to trial, the Senate bill would let the government lock up any citizen it swears is a terrorist, without the burden of proving its case to an independent judge, and for the lifespan of an amorphous war that conceivably will never end. And because the Senate is using the bill that authorizes funding for the military as its vehicle for this dramatic constitutional claim, it’s pretty likely to pass.

This development is disturbing in many dimensions. Note the narrowing and weakening of the long-standing habeas corpus protections of citizens against unlawful detention that our legal system inherited from English common law going back to the Magna Carta. The U.S. Constitution in Article 1, Section 9, states that “The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in cases of rebellion or invasion, the public safety may require it.” Maybe this “cases of invasion” exception is the reason why Senator Lindsay Graham, one of the most vocal supporters of these detention provisions, argues “Is the homeland the battlefield? You better believe it is the battlefield.” A consequence of this position is, as Conor Friedersdorf notes at the Atlantic,

That quote is important, for Graham is saying that as long as terrorists are trying to recruit  on American soil, our homeland is a battlefield. That means a perpetual state of war. Here are the senators who refuse to affirm that American citizens retain the right to due process during this war that is supposedly being waged everywhere on earth and that has no foreseeable end in sight.

He then provides the roll call on one of the amendments that would have limited these detention powers over U.S. citizens. Note also that many of the Senate supporters (and the House supporters of the version passed there earlier this year) claim to be supporters of limited government, but are indeed here codifying increased government powers to wage perpetual war. How can they, and we the voters, not see the hypocrisy and venality inherent in these positions?

Glenn Greenwald highlights another disturbing dimension of this legislation — or, more accurately, of the detention and military powers of the U.S. government. He points out that President Obama may veto this legislation, not because it includes gross violations of the civil liberties of American citizens, but because it represents Congress claiming oversight of executive powers that the Obama Administration (like the Bush Administration before it) asserts to already possess: “… the Bush and Obama administrations have already successfully claimed most of the powers in the bill, and courts have largely acquiesced … this bill would codify indefinite military detention, but the actual changes when compared to what the Executive Branch is doing now would be modest.” Greenwald observes:

But, with a few exceptions, the objections raised by the White House are not grounded in substantive problems with these powers, but rather in the argument that such matters are for the Executive Branch, not the Congress, to decide. In other words, the White House’s objections are grounded in broad theories of Executive Power. They are not arguing: it is wrong to deny accused Terrorists a trial. Instead they insist: whether an accused Terrorist is put in military detention rather than civilian custody is for the President alone to decide. Over and over, the White House’s statement emphasizes Executive power as the basis for its objections to Levin/McCain.

It’s truly disturbing to consider how much centralized political and military power we have allowed to build over the past decade. If the issues surrounding the NDAA are new to you, I recommend Greenwald’s post as a thorough discussion of the substantive and procedural issues. Sheldon Richman’s thought-provoking analysis at the Freeman is also a worthy read.

Finally, note (as do the articles linked above) the bipartisan nature of the support for this increase in government power and authority; a public choice theory-based analysis would easily lead you to that conclusion. Both the Republican wing and the Democrat wing of the Authoritarian Party have offered substantial support for perpetual war and the associated funding and power accompanying it, for both the executive branch and the “representative” branch. The discipline that’s supposed to be provided through our ability to “vote the bums out of office” seems incredibly weak here … or is this state of perpetual war truly the will of the people?

Maybe Orwell was right after all, although I thought most people saw his writing as cautionary tales rather than how-to manuals.

A great relative risk graphic for terrorism

Lynne Kiesling

In previous posts on the TSA and security here, here, here, and here, I’ve argued emphatically for taking a relative risk assessment approach to our security and surveillance policies and spending. Courtesy of Meg McLain, here’s a vivid graphic representing why that’s a good idea, and why we should not be spending so much money so ineffectively on security theater: