A couple of days ago, Louisiana’s junior Senator, David Vitter, penned an article for the National Review about why the President should read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in order to understand offshore oil drilling. Or something like that. Quoting:
The Wealth of Nations is a treasure trove of principles that are at the heart of America’s exceptionalism and unparalleled economic success. Adam Smith realized something revolutionary for his time: The wealth of nations is not dependent on finite factors like the precious metals nations possess. Rather, it is determined by the labor of their citizenry and how productively that labor is employed. This led Smith to additional modern economic concepts such as the opportunity for almost limitless economic growth through division of labor and employment of capital, and perhaps most famously, the “invisible hand” of the free market, which organizes economic activity with astounding efficiency.
Sound compelling? Don’t worry — 235 years and indescribable economic success later — the Obama crowd isn’t buying a bit of it. This is perhaps most evident in Obama’s approach to energy and the environment, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico and in my home state of Louisiana.
At the heart of America’s recipe for remarkable economic growth since World War II has been cheap energy. As mentioned, Adam Smith wrote about division of labor, employment of capital, and how those factors could increase productivity, economic output, and wealth. He gave eighteenth-century examples of how that works. But he couldn’t possibly have imagined just how powerful such an engine could become — or what cheap energy could do for American economic growth.
You got that?
“The wealth of nations is not dependent on finite factors like the precious metals nations possess,” says David Vitter, before pivoting to make the exact opposite point. To be sure, oil is not a metal, but it’s a finite natural resource; that was Adam Smith’s point: It’s about the productivity of your workforce, not the stones or metals or liquids you can dig up under your soil. Those things are finite.
Despite what Senator Vitter believes, energy is not “cheap” in the United States, and it’s definitely not cheap in Louisiana. Vitter seeks to lecture President Obama about Adam Smith, even though it requires him to consent that Smith rejected an economic system built on “finite factors” and even though he must also admit that it would be impossible for Smith to imagine how dependent our economy is on “finite factors” like oil and gas.
For just one second, can we be intellectually honest? Vitter’s rant is total nonsense.
I get it: He’s mad that, in the aftermath of the largest oil disaster in our nation’s history, the President temporarily halted deepwater drilling. The industry employs a lot of people in Louisiana, and to people like Mr. Vitter, the temporary moratorium only exacerbated the ongoing catastrophe. Unfortunately for Mr. Vitter, that’s just not true; it’s not borne out by the facts. The disaster was a result of BP’s actions, not because of a temporary moratorium on drilling during the response and clean-up.
Oil and gas exploration and production is, without a doubt, the most profitable and most lucrative business on the entire planet. As we all witnessed in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, it’s also a perilous and risky enterprise; if disaster strikes, it has the potential of harming and disrupting entire ecosystems, polluting our coastline, and debilitating a wide range of businesses and industries. We can’t afford to be reckless or cavalier.
Our economy is not based on “cheap energy.” Again, despite what Mr. Vitter may suggest, there’s no such thing. As Adam Smith presciently pointed out, our success hinges on the productivity of our workforce and our capacity for innovation and progress. If we build our economy around “finite factors,” then we do so at our own peril. Yes, we need our oil and gas industry, and we rely on domestic energy production for our own national security. No one denies that. However, we also need to be willing to confront long-term questions, questions about sustainability and our future. We cannot afford to allow short-term profiteering to stand in the way of long-term solvency. We have to be able to see the forest from the trees.
It’s not a political determination. It’s not ever going to be resolved by David Vitter and his dissatisfaction with the Obama Administration for slowing down permitting for drilling, as if unfettered and unregulated drilling is somehow the foundation of the American economy. We need to face the music, particularly those of us in Louisiana: For decades, as much as we’ve benefitted from the oil and gas industry, we’ve also been taken advantage of. Our coast has been pillaged. There are popular beaches in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida; Louisiana doesn’t have a popular beach community anymore. Our way of life has been threatened. Only a few miles off of our coast, there are dozens of mega-million dollar oil rigs, rigs that dredge up our natural resources and pump them away to supply fuel for others, rigs that generate billions of dollars in pure profit for a small and select handful of individuals. And in the meantime, Louisiana is one the poorest states in the country, still at the top of the “bad lists.” Our state is near bankruptcy. Our educational system is headed toward a partial collapse. Health care is abysmal. We are facing a mega-billion dollar short-fall. Yet, right off of our coast, we play host to many of the world’s most successful and profitable businesses, and for decades, for over two generations, we haven’t been able to adequately and fairly benefit. Because these hugely profitable companies are located slightly offshore, they don’t always have to contribute to the State of Louisiana; they pay federal taxes, when they’re not attempting to skirt the law. The Landrieu-Domenici Act promises to change some of that, but it won’t solve the historical injustice inflicted on Louisiana.
I don’t know David Vitter. I’ve never met him. I know some of his staff. The guy who created the blog Cenla Antics, Quint Carriere, is Senator Vitter’s point person in Alexandria. I like Quint personally, but frankly, I believe he operated his blog recklessly and unprofessionally. If you’ve ever read Cenla Antics, which is still online, then you’ll likely agree: It undermines the integrity of the United States Senate. It’s mainly a repository for online defamation.
Regardless, I earnestly hope Senator Vitter recognizes that, when all is said and done, he does not represent the oil and gas industry. He wasn’t re-elected because of his antipathy toward the President, though some may assert otherwise. He was elected to serve and represent the people of Louisiana. We don’t need any more oil and gas lobbyists; we already have plenty of them. Let the oil and gas industry pay for their own spokespeople. We can’t afford yet another political ideologue. We’re a small state with big problems, and we already have too many leaders who prefer the limelight. If Mr. Vitter wants to lead, then he needs to begin acting like a leader– not just for the hyper-partisans, but for the people of Louisiana. We gave him six more years to prove himself and make his case.