God help me, I agree with Bill O’Reilly on something.
It’s not as awful as it sounds. As far as political beliefs go, I agree with O’Reilly on a lot of things. I disagree with him on a good bit, too — he tries to mask his opposition to gay rights by acting ambivalent on the issue, but I suspect that when he says “I don’t care” he really means “I don’t want those homos to get married.”
What makes O’Reilly such a prick isn’t his politics; it’s that he’s such a prick. As the host of a basic cable news analysis show, he acts as though he single-handedly runs the entire country. The other day I heard Ben Stein on his radio show lamenting the fact that neither major party presidential candidate has suggested balancing the federal budget. “I called for it,” O’Reilly immediately insisted.
“Yes, but you are not running for president, sir,” Stein politely reminded him.
O’Reilly’s not just deluded about his influence — he’s a bully. He’s just as likely to send his henchman/producer Jesse Waters out with a camera and a microphone to ambush one of his critics as he is a crooked politician or one of those dastardly activist judges.
With all that said, I can finally give him a smidgeon of credit: he’s the only national voice on conservative talk radio (in addition to his Fox News show, he hosts The Radio Factor) who hasn’t spent the last year shamelessly apologizing for the oil industry. A few days ago — with his typical air of arrogant presumption, but nevermind that for now — he called on the companies comprising the five-headed hydra of Big Oil to voluntarily lower gas prices by narrowing their profit margin by 2%. It’s a pointless publicity stunt, since there’s not a chance in hell that the oil companies will go for it (as even O’Reilly admits), but still, it’s refreshing to hear a public figure — any public figure — other than a member in good standing of the partisan American left-wing demanding that Big Oil do the right thing.
There is no clearer demonstration of the corruption of the Republican Party than its response to the recent explosive rise of gasoline prices. With the petroleum industry pulling in record profits every quarter, most Republican politicians and their mouthpieces on talk radio bridle at the mere suggestion that they voluntarily act (or worse yet, be compelled by act of Congress) to lower prices at the pump. The better solution, they insist, is to turn the oil companies loose to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Alaskan National Wildlife Reserve, pretty much anyplace that might have crude under the ground that has not yet suffered their depredations. Coincidentally, this solution would enable the oil companies to swell their net income even further.
The deference shown the oil industry on conservative radio is appalling, given the financial extremity in which many American families find themselves, largely as a result of high gas prices. Tune into Sean Hannity at any point during his daily three-hour broadcast and you’re likely to hear him complaining about the amount of money the government makes from gas taxes, while the oil companies “explore, extract the crude, refine the product . . .” Hannity whips out that mantra every time a caller or guest challenges him on his “letting oil companies do whatever the hell they want is the answer” argument. He uses the phrase so often, with so little alteration, that I wonder if it wouldn’t be more efficient if he just pulled a sound-bite of himself saying it and played that over and over again, like the offending clips of Jeremiah Wright which he still plays ad nauseum on nearly every broadcast.
Yes, the oil companies do conduct the exploration, the extraction, the refinement. Yes, in most states a larger percentage of the per-gallon price of gasoline goes to taxes than to the oil company. Yes, the profit margin of Big Oil is only about 8-10%, smaller than that of many other industries. There is a key difference that the industry’s right-wing chickenheads overlook: oil, unlike tobacco, or computer software, or automobiles, is a necessity. Hannity and his colleagues like Rush Limbaugh and Mark Levin scream and yell about the free market and the obligation of a corporation to pursue profit for the benefit of its shareholders, ignoring the fact that the oil business is not a free market. It does not have to persuade consumers to buy its products — consumers need its products to heat their homes, power and lubricate their vehicles, and do a hundred other things which most people can’t give up without considerable distress. The five major oil companies don’t even compete much against each other — when was the last time you saw two gas stations owned by different companies with a difference in price of more than a couple of cents?
Given that they have most of us over a barrel, given that they benefit immensely from the apathy of the federal government, and given that they have reported all-time record earnings in the tens of billions, is it so unreasonable to ask these, the most successful businesses in the history of human civilization, to show an iota of concern for the consumers who are compelled to buy their products no matter how high the price rises? If you’re an ideologue like Hannity, Levin, or Limbaugh, it’s not only unreasonable — it’s communist.
Is it really communism to ask Big Oil to act on its own to bring a sliver of relief to people? Is there really so little distance between free range amoral capitalism and the Soviet Union? I don’t think so. Neither does Bill O’Reilly. I think O’Reilly is mostly just doing his usual self-serving “Hey, I’m just lookin’ out for the folks” act, but there’s also a part of him that sees what Sean Hannity refuses to see: that for an oil company CEO to make tens of millions a year while his fellow citizens struggle to afford his vital product, is an obscenity.