The sophisticated finance boys on Wall Street are making fun of Bart Stupak, the congressman from the Upper Peninsula who is so much of a hick he cares about poor people who are having trouble affording gasoline.
What really bothers them is that he is now in a position where he may be able to do something about it. Thanks to the Democratic takeover of Congress, he is now chairman of the House Commerce Committee's special subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. He's been holding hearings into the oil-price situation, and has introduced new legislation to tighten regulatory loopholes and force the government to enforce regulations that are already on the books.
"Speculation is OK, I understand that," Stupak told me in his distinctive Yooper accent. "You're always gonna have speculation. But excessive speculation by those who have nothing to do with the oil industry is driving up energy costs for families and crippling our economy."
He's certainly got the numbers on his side. Oil was hovering around $140 a barrel as I write this. Last year at this time, it was about $70 a barrel. Ten years ago, it was $10.92 a barrel. Is your income 12 times what it was in 1998?
You can blame the oil producers for some of this. You can blame inflation and the fact that the price may have been too low before, for some more. But not for most of it. Eight years ago, before the stolen election of 2000, speculators who had no ties to the oil and gas industry accounted for just over one-third of energy trading. As of this April, they accounted for 71 per cent, and rising.
The high price of gas may affect Stupak's constituents even more than most people. His district is one the largest, in terms of square miles, east of the Mississippi River. It includes the entire UP and a huge swath of the eastern Lower Peninsula, down to near Bay City. Most of his voters aren't rich, and some, especially north of the bridge, have to drive immense distances.
Stupak may also be able to relate to average people better than most congressmen. The youngest member of Michigan's Democratic congressional delegation, he was a policeman and state trooper for years, until an injury on the job ended that career in 1984. So he put himself through law school (Cooley) and served in the state Legislature before winning what usually has been a GOP-held seat in Congress in 1992. Angry Republicans have made several serious attempts to beat him, but have always failed. (If their nominee this time, Tom Casperson, were a light bulb, he would be one of considerably low and flickering wattage.)
Last week I asked Stupak — realistically, what should the price of oil be? "The experts before my committee say $60 — maybe $65 a barrel." They also told him that while there are regulatory safeguards in place, the Bush government either grants anyone who wants to violate them an exemption, or just looks the other way. That's why Stupak is trying to tighten them.
"I actually think my bill would lower the price of oil. I don't know if I can get it all the way back, but I think we could roll the price back maybe 30 percent," which would put it under $100 a barrel. That would be nice, for those of us who have to both drive and work for a living.
Whether his bill can get through Congress, much less be signed by oilman G.W. Bush, is a huge question. And naturally, those who make a living manipulating money have denounced what Stupak is trying to do as the rankest kind of populism. One senior writer for Fortune defended the speculators: "By providing a mechanism for locking in prices," this creature pompously declared, "the futures market makes it easier for oil companies to make costly investments in new production." That, not regulations, Jon Birger argued, "is the key to lowering prices at the pump."
Yeah, right. Or as any good Texas oilman would say, "Sheeeeeit." So explain why there hasn't been one new oil refinery built in this nation since 1976. Between this kind of behavior and attempting to ship every last manufacturing job overseas, today's capitalists seem determined to behave in a manner designed to prove Karl Marx's predictions true at last.
And the way things are going now, they may just manage to succeed.
New Yorker mischief: This may be old news now, but the world was consumed with outrage, controversy and general conniption fits last week over the now-infamous New Yorker cover showing Barack Obama as a Muslim and his wife as an AK-47-totin' terrorist in the Oval Office, complete with an American flag burning in the fireplace and a framed portrait of Osama.
What, everybody wanted to know, were they thinking? "Have they sold out to the far right or are they just trying to sell magazines?" somebody asked me.
The answer is certainly not the first, and probably not even the second. What I suspect strongly is this: The New Yorker staff is probably kinda like most of the people in my social circle in Ann Arbor. Nobody knows anybody who isn't for Obama (although there are rumors that this one guy's uncle is a Republican).
They thought the cover was clever satire, when in fact it almost certainly will be used by the slick haters who want to tap into our deep fears that maybe the first black nominee just can't be trusted after all.
What the New Yorker should have done was put a little scroll at the top, saying "The Politics of the Paranoid," or words to that effect. Instead, they managed to leave a wrong impression and create an unnecessary fuss, which could easily have been avoided had editor David Remnick spent a few hours talking to white voters at some place like K-9 pet supply in Warren.
The cover was, however, brilliantly satirized by David Horsey, the cartoonist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. His version was a National Review cover with a drooling John McCain in a wheelchair, mumbling "bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran." His wife Cindy, wearing a glazed-over expression, is showering him with pills. "Here, John, take some of my meds to get you through the inaugural parade!" In this version, Dick Cheney's portrait is over the mantel and the Constitution is burning in the fireplace.
"Know what the difference is?" an editor said to me. "This one is actually funny," because it is easier to imagine it as being true.
Just asking: The Republicans now in power have ruined the economy and lied us into an endless war that continues for no reason at all. They have nominated a candidate who loves the war, has many health problems and who would be the oldest new president in history.
So — does anyone really think that McCain would have any chance of even carrying any states other than a few backwaters like Utah, Wyoming, Alabama and Idaho, if the Democratic nominee didn't happen to be black?Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org