The Progressive Playbook? Thoughts on a Slippery Slope

Is there a master plan behind the blunders of governments? Or are politicians just making it up as they go along? The cabal model is tempting. A lot of people tend to believe that it is not enough for their opponents to wrong; they must also have bad intentions. But usually, less sinister explanations, such as fallible politicians responding to incentives, are a better guide to fixing today’s political mess.

For example, President Biden recently announced that he is asking the Federal Trade Commission to consider using antitrust enforcement to fight rising gas prices. The economist Jeff Eisenach tweeted in response:

The Progressive Play Book: Step 1: Use regulations to restrict supply. Step 2: Blame the oil companies for rising prices. Step 3: Invoke antitrust. Step 4: See e.g., CITCO, Pemex. We are at Step 3.

One should not read too deeply into tweets. They lack enough space either to explain nuances or to define terms clearly enough to prevent misunderstandings. Sometimes, people are just making a snarky point, and they don’t have room for a disclaimer in a 280-character tweet.

Any or all of these situations could be the case here, but Eisenach’s playbook theory tweet has a clear—and common—slippery-slope logic that is worth a closer look. This is not to single out Eisenach, but to highlight a tendency among people of all political persuasions: to assume bad motives and master plans where there probably aren’t any.

Progressives often favor adding new economic regulation, and rarely favor rolling them back. So, it makes sense that progressives would respond to rising gas prices—largely caused by regulations—with more regulations. In Eisenach’s playbook model, this story presumably repeats until the energy sector is nationalized, as with Pemex, which is owned by the Mexican government, and Citgo, in which the Venezuelan government has a stake (though it cannot benefit from Citgo’s U.S. holdings because of sanctions).

This isn’t entirely drawn from thin air. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) really has proposed nationalizing the energy industry. The Green New Deal may not be a serious proposal, but it really was introduced as legislation.

But is the slippery slope really so deliberate? Just like the GOP’s own populist extremists, the Democratic party’s progressive wing has a high decibel level, but lower numbers and influence. Yes, progressivism touts lofty ideals, such as economic equality, democracy, and environmental protection, but in practice, progressive policies tend to be less lofty and more concrete.

If some people are having trouble making ends meet, pass a law raising the minimum wage. If other people have too much money, raise their taxes. If rents are too high, use price controls or impose a moratorium on evictions. President Biden’s antitrust threat against oil producers is similarly direct. Gas prices are going up, so do something about it. Such moves don’t involve much abstract thought about long-term competitive processes, tradeoffs, unintended consequences, or rent-seeking—what economist Thomas Sowell calls thinking beyond stage one.

If anything, President Biden’s proposal mixes a layman’s misunderstanding of the 1970s oil shock from early in his career with today’s hottest political trends, such as inflation and antitrust. Availability bias is a far likelier driver for his proposal than a playbook to eventually nationalize the energy industry.

Inflation and high gas prices were important issues in the 1970s. The two are linked together in a lot of peoples’ minds to this day. Today, inflation is back over 5 percent and gas prices going up again. In his speech, President Biden even singled out OPEC, which is long past its prime as a global economic villain.

Another factor that makes the current gas price increase appear even starker is that prices are rising from a low starting point. On April 23, 2020,  gas prices averaged $1.77 per gallon, the lowest since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, gas prices haves been on an upward trajectory, rising to $3.17 per gallon by August 16, 2021. While that is a sharp increase, thanks in large part to that low starting point, gas is still cheaper than it was for almost all of the period between 2011 and 2014.

Inflation is also not the main driver of rising gas prices. Inflation is what happens when the supply of money gets out of whack with the supply of goods and services. If it isn’t monetary, it isn’t inflation. Today’s inflation is likely responsible for about 10 cents per gallon of the price increase, out of roughly $1.40. Most of the rest comes from a mix of supply, demand, and bad regulations.

The Jones Act of 1920, which is essentially a Buy American bill for the maritime shipping industry, makes shipping domestic gas artificially expensive and increases reliance on imported oil. Both of these make gas prices higher and more volatile. The Biden administration’s decisions to deny drilling and pipeline permits and to raise some regulatory burdens are also raising prices and squeezing supply. These are not inflation, but they are raising prices.

Coincidentally, higher prices and restricted supply are the same indicators used in finding consumer harm in antitrust cases, adding potential confusion to any antitrust cases stemming from Biden’s proposal. His recently proposed carbon tariffs on imported oil would further worsen the problem.

Repealing existing regulations and walking back proposed burdens would do more to lower gas prices than adding new restrictions—but that would require admitting mistakes. Politicians generally prefer to shift the blame and then publicly punish some supposed bad guys. That is not a conspiracy; it is rational political behavior.

The state of politics is unhealthy. There are lot of changes needed at the cultural, institutional, and policy levels. While conspiratorial allegations of political playbooks and slippery slopes are tempting as explanations, a lot of bad policy simply involves politicians responding to the incentives they face with the limited knowledge they have—the same as everyone else does.

The economic recovery and the continuing long-run rise in living standards would be better served if reformers would focus their scarce resources on these, rather than on exposing sinister narratives that aren’t really there.

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