May 2006

Agreed-upon greed

By David Feela

Recently I watched a classic film I haven’t seen in 40 years, “The Wizard of Oz.” It gave me nightmares throughout my childhood. The scene where the wicked witch’s foot shrivels up and disappears under the house that fell upon her had the power to electrify my dreams; for 10 years I checked under the bed in case any disembodied feet were lurking there. But what bothered me more than the foot when I watched the film recently was the man behind the curtain, manipulating poor Dorothy and an entire population of munchkins under the guise of being a powerful wizard. I keep imagining the same scam being acted out each day in America. If only it took a tiny dog with the tenacity of Toto to expose the fraud.

You see, every time I drive my car I’m obliged to pay a wizard, a wonderful Wizard of Oil. Because... because... because, because, becaaaaaaaase... because of the self-serving gouging he does. President Bush pledges that “if we find any price-gouging, it will be dealt with firmly,” but he won’t look behind the curtain.

And if I could confront the actual Wizard – not just the exhaust and mirrors he passes off as economic realities – I’d like to ask him why our current oil crisis amounts to a national looting spree by our producers and distributors of oil, or why our petroleum board rooms have been taken over by a new, oil-slick Mafia? I’m even willing to steal the fuel injectors off Dick Cheney’s vicepresidential limousine if that’s what it takes to get some honest answers.

I suspect, though, that the answer is simple enough: plain greed. Or, as I would redefine it for contemporary living, agreed-upon greed: The practice of taking what you want because everyone else is doing the same thing. With oil prices reaching record highs, I’m having trouble believing that fear in the market is the root cause for skyrocketing prices. Certainly, the Mideast is unstable – invading Iraq hasn’t helped. Surely, African supplies have been affected by violence and unrest in Nigeria – we may need to invade that country next. Naturally, China’s growth as a energy-driven economy should make us sit up and take notice – they’ve seen the SUV; the Chinese fire drill won’t smother any of our insecurities. But if Iran secretly develops a nuclear-powered automobile before U.S. auto manufacturers do, I’m going to be upset. The radioactive hot rod belongs on American streets.

I’ve responded to the oil crisis responsibly, by downsizing my own consumption. I traded my 6-cylinder Pontiac Gram Am GT for a used Honda hybrid. My 4-cylinder Toyota pickup has gone into hibernation while I tool around town on a scooter. Overall, I try to put on fewer miles, stay closer to home. What else can I do? While I’m paying premium prices for inflated gas, the Dow Jones average and the NASDAQ keep soaking up every drop of tragic news and in an alchemy I’ve never learned, they turn it into profit. A barrel of crude now costs more than what a substitute teacher in my school district makes in a working day. Where’s a good witch when you need her? The roads are turning from yellow brick to gold. Who can afford to drive on them any more? I’d ride a broomstick if I could, just to sweep the old gasbags out.

It’s time for a revolution in attitude. Maybe tomorrow on my way to work I’ll stop at the Silver Bean and drink not one but two cups of coffee, encourage the employees to double their prices, pocket the difference, and maybe even reach into a few customers’ pockets for a fistful of loose change. Once I get to my classroom I’ll convince my students that it’s good business demanding a dollar for every fact they are forced to learn – two dollars if it requires higher-octane thinking. At lunch I’ll eat twice the food I usually consume. I’ll leave without teaching my afternoon classes, go shopping and max out my credit card. I’ll stay up way past midnight and double my extravagances the next day.

I doubt working people can get away with a double life very long. Eventually the authorities will cry, “Enough!” But by then at least we’ll know that they know when enough actually means enough.

David Feela teaches at Montezuma- Cortez High School.