Mike Baker: Pitchforks and Energy Policy

Last week’s column, entitled "We Can’t Afford to Be Ignorant Anymore" and focusing on how little the average citizen knows about the pricing of oil, obviously struck a nerve with the PWB readership. Leave was cancelled as the staff was faced with an unprecedented volume of reader e-mail.

This required the interns to sit for hours at their desks and read through the responses while quietly moving their lips and looking up the bigger words in the dictionary. Sometimes the PWB offices look vaguely like those old 1960s labs where scientists tried to teach monkeys to read and use elementary language skills. In fact, I’ve renamed Intern No. 2 "Bobo."

The e-mail responses overwhelmingly were in favor of our call for an objective, informative broadcast designed to explain in plain English what goes into the cost of a barrel of oil.

My point was simple… produce a program where real live experts from the petroleum industry and the finance sector tell the American public what’s actually involved in the pricing process.

This would replace the current system, which involves politicians, pundits, campaign dweebs from both sides and other assorted folks all sharing a distinct lack of expertise in the subject yet explaining to you and me what the hell is going on. This, of course, has led to a collective idiocy on the part of the public over why we are spending our retirement nest eggs to fill up the truck.

Rather than grabbing the pitchforks and torches and heading out into the streets, we’ve succumbed to an ignorance-induced stupor where we spend our time listening to inane soundbites and talking points from both the Democrats and the Republicans. Perhaps I wouldn’t be so irritated if it all didn’t have a vaguely familiar feel.

Travel back in time with me now as everything goes wavy… I remember sitting in gas lines back in the disco era. I would be sent out in the family station wagon before sunrise to get in line at the local filling station. Armed with nothing more than a Yoohoo, a box of little powdered donuts and a collection of 8-tracks, I’d sit for hours waiting my turn to buy however many gallons the station owner deigned me.

The owner was a cranky old guy who periodically would walk out to the pumps, stare up at the sky like he was picking up a divine broadcast and then announce what your allotment would be.

While the sitting and waiting was hellish, the real agony came from the fact that the only working 8-track was the soundtrack to "Saturday Night Fever." There were tapes from Bachman Turner Overdrive, the Steve Miller Band, the Eagles, Lynyrd Skynryd and others, but they’d all suffered from either overuse or exposure to sunlight.

Numerous 8-tracks accidentally were left exposed to the sun’s rays while sitting on the hot, Corinthian leather of the front bench seat. There they would either warp and become unusable or burst into flames, leaving behind a small pile of geezer rock ash. Only the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack survived. To this day the opening sounds of "Disco Inferno" send me back 30 years to the gas lines of my youth. How pathetic is that?

As we all know, the last gas crisis did absolutely nothing to spur us toward energy independence or the serious pursuit of alternative fuel sources. If anything, it spurred us toward the development and pursuit of SUVs.

That’s apparently what we took away from the experience of the last major energy crisis… a desire to build Hummers and 48-foot-long Suburbans with enough cup holders to corral Big Gulps for an entire youth soccer team. That worked out well.

If we’re not careful, we’ll come out of this latest crisis with similarly useless and short-term results… oil stabilized at a comfort zone just over $100 a barrel, OPEC agreeing to pump more (whatever it takes to keep us from seriously pursuing alternative energy) and the auto industry happily pooping out hybrid SUVs as the solution to our problem. Just enough action to keep us drunk and happy at the oil trough.

Instead, we need to collectively get smart on the subject, press our elected officials for action in developing a comprehensive energy plan and then keep jabbing them with pitchforks until they get something done. I’m kidding, of course, about the pitchforks.

The PWB in no way is advocating the use of pitchforks in the development of an energy policy. Seriously, how many of us own pitchforks anymore? What the hell are we going to arm ourselves with if we head out into the streets as a mob? This is an issue that should be addressed in a future column.

On to the mailbag:

Scott from parts unknown writes… "Great idea. It could even be done on other complex issues like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, the U.S. corporate tax rate and other topics. So many topics that an entire news network could be born from it. We could even come up with a name for it — may I suggest "journalism."

Seems like Scott’s got himself a slight tetch of sarcasm. In an ideal world, journalism exists to inform the public in an objective and accurate manner free of agendas, bias and ego. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened ever. Journalism always has been about opinions, slant and subjectivity. Only tools in denial and pretentious college journalism students claim they’re completely objective.

Joe and Dana, apparently they write their e-mails jointly, said that "…your point is accurate, Mr. Baker, but when exactly was the last time most Americans stopped doing something simply because they couldn’t afford to continue? Thanks for the insight and if you can get somebody to make it, I’ll watch it… sort of like 'Field of Dreams' with a twist."

Steve, a chief range officer, puts in his vote… "You hit the nail right on the head as it were (with the oil pricing program). I stopped watching television about two years ago, but I’d dust off the set for those two hours."

Mike from Rockville, in what he refers to as The People's Republic of Maryland, notes that "…I think the next time I hear one of these idiots say that "well, you know, it will be 20 years until we see the first drop of oil from new drilling" my head will explode. Didn’t we hear the same drivel 20 years ago?"

Uh, yes, I believe we did hear the same drivel 20 years ago. And it’s a favored talking point now when arguing against exploring or drilling in new U.S. fields… "It’ll take years for that oil to reach the market and won’t do anything for the near term."

This is not a clever argument and yet the Republicans I’ve watched seem unable to respond… perhaps because the party is saving its clever Republicans for later in the general election. I don’t know.

Ernie, and everyone should know someone named Ernie, takes exception to my comment in last week’s article about how the PWB interns think the average citizen won’t bother to watch a dry, informative program that’s good for him.

He goes directly after Bobo and Intern No. 3 by saying "…Tell your interns to go pound sand. There are a lot of us out here who would like to see a two-hour special on energy pricing."

Kelly from an unidentified location agrees… "What date, time and channel? I’m there."

Todd, a resident of Falconer, N.Y. is a little more expansive… "Is it too much to ask for a reasonable, civilized discourse on this subject? I am soooooo sick of all the partisan garbage in this country."

That, by the way, is Todd’s spelling of "soooooo," not mine.

Others, while saying that they would watch, agreed with the interns' theory that many wouldn’t tune in.

Tom from the great state of North Carolina wrote eloquently that… "Sorry, Mike, if there’s no well-endowed ladies named Misty, no half-naked six-pack-bellied pool boys named Raoul, no fast cars or bloody bodies with CSI ladies showing deep cleavage, only nerds like you and I will watch."

Huh. Actually, in our first pre-production meeting for this program we spent most of the time casting well-endowed ladies and test-driving fast cars with exceptionally poor mileage ratings. It never occurred to us that the show wouldn’t include these features. This is journalism, after all.

We received a large number of e-mails from readers who work in various parts of the oil industry. Many provided very detailed explanations from their particular perspectives and many requested anonymity since they work for public companies. We opted not to print any of their e-mails, in part because of space limitations and in part because they used really complicated words that we weren’t all that familiar with.

Finally, some of the finest material came from churlish readers who mistook the PWB for an educational forum with socially redeeming qualities and then came away disappointed. Clearly, these folks are not regulars.

Case in point, Dennis from Wisconsin sent in this terse number… "I was hoping to be educated in the matter. In reality, there was much palaver and no answers. Next time, don’t waste my time whining; put down some answers."

OK, answer No. 1: What a load of crap. Dennis, the faithful readers of the PWB know that our slogan is "All palaver, no answers."

If I were going to provide an educational opportunity for the most excellent readers, I’d have to fire Interns 1 through 3 and hire kids that could do actual research. My guess is that we’d be more informative but a hell of a lot less fun.

But rest comfortably, Dennis, for you have companions. Bob, just Bob, writes that "Your article promises to explain the middle men in the oil-pricing process and you promise to not muddy the waters with eco or other issues. I read your entire article, hoping for some information, and it turned out to be all mud and doesn’t explain anything."

Bob, if I may call you Bob… at no point in my column last week did I promise anything. And what prompted you to read the PWB hoping for some information? I apologize if you were led to the column under false pretenses.

Take a page from Mike in North Carolina. He’s correctly pegged the PWB on the academic scale of life, writing that … "Reading your articles is more fun than reading a comic book. But honestly, do you write these stories or do the interns?"

Putting out the column in comic book form might be an inspired idea. The interns could have mildly useful superpowers and we would fight crime and insipid, partisan politics from our secret lair in the big city of Crapopolis. Let me get busy on that idea. It beats coming up with an informative article.

Till next week, stay safe.

Respond to the Writer.

Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant, writer and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures and two new BBC drama series finishing production in the U.K.

Mike Baker is the Co-Founder of Diligence LLC, a leading global intelligence, security and risk management firm. Prior to starting Diligence, Mike spent over a decade and half with the CIA as a covert field operations officer. He is a regular contributor in the national and international media on intelligence, security, counterterrorism and political issues. He appears regularly on Fox News, as well as other major media outlets.