“The opportunity … to change the story”

I listened with great interest to a recent episode of Speaking of Faith, devoted to changing values in the economic downturn, and titled Repossessing Virtue. Instead of drawing conclusions about how nationwide values have changed, it offered thoughts about how individual values can change. I think there’s a lot to be said for considering the cultural moment on an individual level.

There were some great passages in the show, and since there’s a transcript, I can easily pass along this bit, which I found particularly good (with a little bolded by me). It’s from Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen:

The culture tells me in order to live, I need to have 43 lipsticks and 10 face creams and no wrinkles, right? But those things cost a lot of money. And because I can’t buy them now in a knee-jerk way, I find myself recognizing that I really don’t need them. I need something else.

And I think that the economy is a pointing finger to a spiritual emptiness that has been among us for a long time and that we have an opportunity to fill it now, and that’s very, very exciting stuff. You know, in just thinking about all of this money, money itself, physical money, densest form of human energy. That’s what money is, stored energy. Now energy follows belief. The economy is based, I believe, not on scientific laws as much, but on peoples’ beliefs.

What is a good life? The answer to that drives an economy or other such questions or thoughts or beliefs. I believe that I’m alone and therefore I have to have something to be with me, to take care of me. I’m not safe. My whole life is about getting safe, so I spend money or don’t spend money based on these kinds of beliefs.

So another way of saying that is we got into this place because of the story, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves, about other people, about the world, that the goal in life is comfort, which is, I think, one of the most dangerous stories in the whole world, by the way (laughter).

But the opportunity here is to change the story.

Buying In readers will no doubt see immediately why I like this so much.

Are “we” ready to cut back on all “our” extra cars and TVs?

Kurt Andersen, who is as well-known as a writer can be and still deal with his name being consistently misspelled (I’ve seen it rendered Anderson three times in the last month), has a very readable shot at Big Think about the current economic cultural moment in Time Magazine. Check it out here.

Two bits I want to highlight:

If you want to feel encouraged about our economic near future — not this damned decade but the one to come — ignore the stock traders and go talk to some venture capitalists. They aren’t quite giddy (after the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s, beware all giddiness), but they are optimistic about an imminent tide of innovations in technology, energy and transportation.

I think this is true (certainly consistent with conversations I’ve had over the last few months) and very much worth keeping in mind.

And then there’s this:

Yes, we must start spending again, and we will. But we’ve all known people who, having survived the 1930s, never lost their Depression habits of frugality. And so it will be again. We don’t need to turn ourselves into tedious, zero-body-fat, zero-carbon-footprint ascetics, but even after the economy recovers, deciding to forgo that third car or fifth TV or imperial master bathroom or marginally cooler laptop will come more naturally.

This I’m less certain of. It’s the final bit that stops me. How many of “us” were buying a third car and fifth TV in recent years? I think this kind of generalization is actually what drives a lot of Americans crazy about media thinkers (maybe it’s even why the idiotic notion of the “media elite” is so persistent).

But apart from that, I also just think such overgeneralizations really fail to capture how complex this situation is.

Many Americans, it seems to me, are not reacting to this economy by saying, “I need to stop being so greedy and materialistic.” They didn’t buy a McMansion or a Hummer or a fifth TV (or, dare I say it, even an iPhone) — but they got laid off anyway. Or they’re scared that they will be soon. Some simply feel cheated. Some are quite angry, and what they are saying is: “Where’s my bailout?” I think for a lot of people, the issue isn’t that “we must start spending again,” but rather that “we” must find secure employement again.

I could go on, but basically, for a whole bunch of reasons, I just don’t think everybody out there is feeling like they need to repent for 25 years of mindless and greedy overspending.

Do you?


In a post back in November, I quoted a little from Robert J. Samuelson Newsweek article in which he more or less drew a link between American materialism, and American self-esteem (this in the context of  the economic downturn that at the time was still coming into full view).

An interesting comment on that post came from reader Jonathan, who essentially said that material goods had already been fading in significance: “Generations Y and X place more value on social capital in establishing their self-esteem, as in how many Facebook friends they’ve got, how their love lives are going, etc. … The Internet provides more opportunity for inexpensive socializing (meetups, parties, conversation).”

While I can think of ways to rebut, or at least question, that assertion, I think the essence of Jonathan’s point is pretty interesting, and it’s stuck with me. I’ve been intrigued by what I guess I’m going to call immaterialism for a while, and I do wonder if there’s a sub-plot here to the question of what sort of consumer culture eventually emerges from this recession.

Here’s some more fodder. I apologize in advance for the long post, but if  you have reactions I’d love to hear them.

Recently, Wired’s Underwire blog, in answering the hypothetical question, “what would you grab if you had just 20 minutes to save the objects in your home that mean the most to you,” replied: My USB drive. Obviously that answer has nothing to do with the  object, but rather with the immaterial data it stores.

Similarly, on a SXSW panel, Tim Brown of Ideo said something about (if I remember this right) the data on his laptop being more important than the physical laptop.

Another variation: A couple of times Consumed I’ve dealth with virtual goods — in this October 16, 2005, column on EverQuest, and this October 1, 2006 column about Second Life. And I’m certainly not the only person to write about that (non)stuff — there are whole books about people making and spending real money in virtual worlds.

And finally: A more recent Consumed dealt with iPhone apps, even silly ones, that consumers will spend money on and presumably value, creating another vibrant immaterial marketplace.

Now, none of that is exactly what Jonathan was talking about.

But … Let’s say you go along with the basic premise that much of the material-object-buying of recent years (decades) is partly explained by consumer desires for more abstract ideas such as individualism, or connection, or progress, or status, and the self-esteem that Samuelson references.

Can these various immaterial offerings serve a similar function? If so, does that have a  broad impact on consumer culture going forward, or does it just become another element of it? And how, in turn, does the recession affect our desires for immaterial goods — spending on stuff in virtual worlds, for instance?How does t

I return to virtual goods in part because I listened to a segment on DNA recently about an architect who has basically moved his practice to Second Life, creating “buildings” there for various clients. In that old EverQuest column, I noted argued that spending a few dollars on an (immaterial) Pristine Teak Strong Box isn’t that different from paying a few dollars extra for a (material) suitcase that happens to carry a luxury brand name: “Paying for the intangible is hardly exotic; most of us do it all the time.”

To take that another step: The immaterial object isn’t made in a dubious factory, and won’t end up in landfill. So maybe it’s even possible to argue that immaterialism channels consumer desires in ways that are, on some level, better.

Which isn’t to say there are no consequences (eco and otherwise) to our digital habits — more on that tomorrow. Because this is way too long.

For now, just sketching out these few thoughts, and curious if  you have any.

Mixed signals

So, as noted, I was at SXSW Interactive this weekend. Since getting back I’ve slowly been catching up on my reading. I’m struck by the tone of two recent columns, one by David Brooks, and the other by Peggy Noonan. Most notably, I’m struck by how different they are in tone from the general mood (as I was reading it, at least) at the Austin Convention Center.

First here’s some of Brooks:

There are no aspirational stories of rags-to-riches success floating around. There are no new how-to-get-rich enthusiasms. There are few magazine covers breathlessly telling readers that some new possibility — biotechnology, nanotechnology — is about to change everything. That part of American culture that stokes ambition and encourages risk has gone silent.

We are now in an astonishingly noncommercial moment. Risk is out of favor. The financial world is abashed. Enterprise is suspended. The public culture is dominated by one downbeat story after another as members of the educated class explore and enjoy the humiliation of the capitalist vulgarians.

Peggy Noonan’s column is even more downbeat than that — way more downbeat. It’s more like a J.G. Ballard story. Citing sources such as “a Wall Street titan,” “a Manhattan-based psychiatrist,” a “perceptive writer,” and “a friend in Florida,” she spins a portrait of the country in anxiety and fear and dystopia: Americans are apparently hoarding guns and gold coins, pulling money from the bank and preparing to grow their own food in the backyard.

Now I was only at SXSW a couple of days, but the last day it came up in one conversation that nobody seemed to be talking about the economy at all. The only panel it came up in was one that I was on (and was actually brought up by me — though I wasn’t making any points about end times being nigh). People were unveiling business ideas, lining up for movie openings, crowding panel talks to here more about what’s the next Twitter or how to be me more awesome, or whatever — and figuring where the next party was.

Maybe others had a different experience, but I truly felt like I was in some kind of recession-free zone. Certainly one didn’t sense that “enterprise is suspended” — let alone that we live in “a pandemic of fear,” as Noonan’s psychiatrist source puts it.

I should also mention that I traveled on full planes, through crowded airports. Yesterday Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day hoedown was reportedly robust.

On the other hand … today, on On Point, callers angry about the AIG thing dropped references to “treason,” or simply declared, “I want blood.”

Oh. And the markets closed up again today.

So: What’s the deal? Are Brooks and Noonan out of touch? Are the SXSWers out of touch? Or is Hugo Lindgren correct that the anxiety is simply amplified in NYC (and perhaps by extension DC, where Brooks is based)? What about those incendiary NPR listeners? What about the markets?

Is it all just more proof that overgeneralizing is always a bad idea? More evidence/another variation on the idea that there are multiple Americas?

Branding the recovery


At the Department of Transportation Tuesday, Mr. Obama unveiled a new logo for projects funded by his $787 billion stimulus plan and announced the first infrastructure project to receive funds.

The logo — with a three-leafed sprig for green jobs, a set of gears for infrastructure, and “recovery.gov” beside a field of stars — will be used to brand projects as well as raise the visibility of the White House’s economic initiatives and try to dramatize their impact.

This is interesting and I think it’s potentially smart. I’ll leave it to others to critique the actual design — and I expect there will be plenty of critiques. But as is so often the case with logos (including the vaunted Obama campaign logo), what will really matter won’t be simply aesthetics, but repetition and context. If people really start to see this a lot, connected to actual work being done, it will have the desired effect: “Wow, that stimulus money is making things happen.”

Freak-out chic

vending_machineriesSo is frugal still the new sexy?  Is thrifty still cool? I don’t feel like I’m seeing variations on that trend story so much lately. Now I feel like what I’m reading more often is that maybe consumer behavior is being shaped less by  “new values” than by, oh, I don’t know, panic and fear.

Check out some comments from today’s WSJ wrapup of stock market sentiment:

Gone are the days where the mantra among investors was to “buy the dips,” on the belief that when stock prices fall, they’re likely to rebound. Instead, the opposite sentiment has taken hold.

“It’s like an unending nightmare,” says Kent Engelke, managing director at Capital Securities Management in Glen Allen, Va.

Astonishingly, the piece says: “Many analysts and investors are still worried that earnings estimates are too high.” In other words there is still too much optimism out there. Can that be? I guess it’s possible. From everything I see in the papers, online, on television, expectations are extremely bad. The primary position of most economics experts seems to be finding inventive new ways to say: “That plan won’t work.”

And at the grassroots level? Well, the WSJ story includes an anecdote from an investment adviser who turned bearish in 2007 and started telling  his clients to get back into the market late last year: “Their response, he says, has been to send him hate mail.”

Despite all this, the WSJ says “The market has yet to show signs of reaching a bottom,” because “there has been no panic selling in large volume.” So that’s the other problem to go along with too much optimism — not enough panic.

As I go about my day-to-day life, I don’t feel like everybody I come into contact with is freaking out. But maybe that’s because I’m in Savannah, and the vibe in New York and/or Washington is different. But I must say the level of gloom and panic and freaking-out in the press (both mainstream and “citizen” varieties) is something I’ve never seen before. Possibly it’s just a feedback loop, everybody trying to paint a dimmer picture than everyone else, finding new ways to predict maximum collapse. I’m very much a news junkie sort, and this is the first time I can ever remember wanting to avoid reading another take on the “big story” of the moment — the big story of the moment being economic calamity.

If it’s somehow true that there’s not enough panic out there, it’s not for lacking of trying on the part of the contemporary info-ecosystem.

It’s giving me panic fatigue.

Artwork by Shawn Wolfe & used without permission, but with the hope that he’ll be forgiving.

“What’s in it for me?”

During my technical-difficulties hiatus I was unable to mention the Times Magazine cover story, “The Big Fix,” about the various plans to revive the economy and so on. There’s much in it that’s worth reading if you haven’t already. The one thing I wanted to highlight here is a bit toward the end.

Economists don’t talk much about cultural norms. They prefer to emphasize prices, taxes and other incentives.

[But] the norms of the last two decades or so — consume before invest; worry about the short term, not the long term — have been more than just a reflection of the economy. They have also affected the economy.

Most of the examples that follow are other-directed: greedy CEOs, corrupt technocrats, etc. “Consume before invest” has been a grass-roots cultural norm, too, no? Writer David Leonhardt addresses that side of the equation somewhat indirectly, with this finding:

Towns and cities with a large elderly population once devoted a higher-than-average share of their taxes to schools. Apparently, age made them see the benefits of education.

In recent decades, though, the relationship switched. Older towns spent less than average on schools. You can imagine voters in these places asking themselves, “What’s in it for me?”

One interesting cultural-norm question is whether  “What’s in it for me?” is changing or not. I think the evidence is mixed.

Early 1980s revisited

I guess this WSJ “Outlook” column is available only to subscribers, but it’s pretty interesting. Writer Justin Lahart compares the current economic moment to 1980. Back then, Fed actions radically tightened credit in attempt to snap brutal inflation, and that medicine entailed a huge blow to consumer spending:

The credit controls had an immediate effect on behavior. Sales fell sharply and companies shed workers at an alarming rate, with the economy losing a million jobs between April and June. Final sales, a measure of overall economic demand, fell by an inflation-adjusted 7.5% in the second quarter — a drop even steeper than the 5.2% decline final sales registered in the fourth quarter last year.

The interesting part is that that when the Fed ligthened up a few months later, “economists had little hope that a recovery would happen anytime soon. The Fed agreed, forecasting that the economy would contract for the rest of the year.” But they were wrong. Almost immediately, pent-up demand spilled into spending: “With the credit crunch over, consumers and companies raced to buy what they had held off on. Final sales rose 5.4% in the third quarter, and a further 3.6% in the fourth.”

Such rebounds are actually the norm. Of the 10 largest quarterly drops in final sales over the past 50 years, nine were followed by rebounds the following quarter, with an average gain of 5.4%. The chance of any rebound in the current quarter seems far-fetched after last week’s dismal reports on January manufacturing activity, chain-store sales and jobs. Still, if the government’s coming stimulus package and bank plan are able to restore a modicum of confidence in the economy, recovery could come surprisingly quickly.

Is that an overly optimistic scenario? Perhaps. Savings rates were a lot higher going into that 1980 period than they were going into the fourth quarter of 2008. And there seem to be so many interwoven factors now, it’s just hard to believe in a quick rebound of any kind. Then again, people were pretty pessimistic back in 1980s, too.

Anyway, the truth is that Lahart’s comparison to the early 1980s isn’t really that optimistic.

The economic expansion that followed the 1980 recession was one of the briefest on record. Rampant inflation and overdependence on a manufacturing sector facing stiff foreign competition were still problems, and by mid-1981 the economy was careening into the longest downturn since the Great Depression. After years of heavy dependence on credit-fueled spending, a quick recovery for today’s economy could also prove fleeting.

Okay, so that’s not very cheery. But it’s nice to have some historical perspective just the same.

Banks evidently waiting for America to devolve into a more Road Warrior-like scenario

That’s the only conclusion I can draw from yesterday’s NYT story about apparently healthy banks who got chunks of cash from TARP and now amiably admit that they’re simply sitting on it.

One guy actually refers to the $88 million his bank received from Treasury as “opportunity capital.” (After all, “They didn’t tell me I had to do anything particular with it,” he said.)

“We see TARP as an insurance policy,” agrees the head of a bank that got $300 million in “bailout” money. “That when all this stuff is finally over, no matter how bad it gets, we’re going to be one of the remaining banks.”


New media’s secret weapon: Hype from old media

The other day I read something in The New Republic, a book review in which the writer said in passing: “The media industry’s attacks on the net can be scary, but they can also be understood as death throes.”

I had to read that sentence again. What was he talking about? Not the death throes — I get that part. The scary attacks. I realized he must be referring to the occasional high-minded broadsides about blogs dumbing down the culture, or whatever. I’ve seen those. But does anybody really find them “scary”? Surely nobody in the new-media blogosphere does. Such laments have approximately zero impact, and are routinely swatted down by the blognoscenti as, yes,  the death throes of irrelevant gatekeeper dinosaurs who don’t get it and don’t matter anymore. “Dead tree media” and all that.

The next day I was skimming an issue of New York Magazine and noticed this exchange in a Q&A with Rob Corddry about his new Web-only show, Children’s Hospital.

Q: How do you market a Web show?
A: I had my publicist get me an interview at New York Magazine.
Q: Seriously.

Corddry goes on to say something vague about “manipulating Google,” but the right answer is: “Um, seriously. Who the fuck are  you kidding? Mainstream media eats up news of the latest new-media whatever with a spoon!”

After all, isn’t that the case? Occasional broadsides notwithstanding, hasn’t the traditional media, by and large, functioned largely as a cheerleader for and amplifier of new media? If Corddry has a traditional sitcom, nobody (in the mainstream media) really cares. But he has a Web-based sitcom? Oooh! Cutting-edge! Write it up!

The Times Magazine (my primary client, of course) has done more than one cover story about bloggers, and has hired one of the most talented critics I’ve ever met to do a column about aspects of Web-media culture every week. The column is not a series of scary attacks. Meanwhile, every section of the paper has done multiple stories about this or that blogger in almost every category imaginable — design, gossip, restaurants, politics, “citizen journalists,” whatever. I would certainly guess the paper has run more stories about Twitter than about, say, a TV show like N.C.I.S., which probably has at least double the audience.

But this makes sense, in that the new-media stories are, you know, newer. More like news. Indeed I would actually say that one meta-story that the traditional media has covered quite thoroughly in the last 10 or 15 years is the story of the new media. Has there ever been a significant online phenomenon that was not only covered but in effect abetted by mainstream coverage? That is to say: I wonder how often new-media properties, from Napster to Facebook, take off precisely because old media introduced them to a wider audience. Or at the very least, if the old-media coverage didn’t juice things along much faster than might have otherwise occurred.

I’m not suggesting that new-media forms wouldn’t catch on anyway. But I am suggesting that the number of “scary attacks” from the old media are far outweighed by “ya gotta check this out” hype. Which is exactly why Corrdry’s new-media strategy involved having his publicist call New York Magazine.

In The New York Times Magazine: Deconstructing the “New Thrift”

Consumer spending finally falters — can it be good news?

This week in Consumed, as part of the Times Magazine‘s annual “Year In Ideas” issue, I look at the repackaging of falling consumer spending as frugality chic. Is this truly a sea change in values?

The truth is that we have long had mixed, even contradictory, feelings about consumption. A few years ago — pretty much at the height of our most recent nationwide spending binge — a nonprofit group called the Center for a New American Dream released a poll in which 81 percent of those surveyed agreed that Americans are “too focused on shopping and spending,” and 88 percent said our society is “too materialistic.” Not long after, the Pew Research Center surveyed Americans about various consumer goods we say we “can’t live without.” Between 1996 and 2006 the number of material necessities in our lives grew substantially. Aside from new entries — 49 percent can’t live without a cellphone, and 29 percent said the same of high-speed Internet access — our need for more familiar items spiked, too. The number of people who considered the microwave oven a necessity, for instance, nearly doubled. Some respondents added iPods and flat-screen TVs to the list. Uneasy as we may be about “materialistic” purchases, they remain a tangible proxy for progress.

Second thoughts about that paradigm are nothing new. “Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption,” Jimmy Carter declared in 1979 in his “crisis of confidence” speech. “We’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” It’s hard to imagine anyone, then or now, arguing otherwise. But who, at the end of the 1970s, would have predicted the emergence of a new normal that included gas-guzzling S.U.V.’s and McMansions?

Read the whole column here, or in the December 14, 2008 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

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Deprived … of feeling affluent

From Robert J. Samuelson’s Newsweek cover story:

The bad news is that recovery, though boosting employment, may prove unsatisfying. Our new economic era may lapse into a state of “affluent deprivation.” That’s an unfamiliar term. It doesn’t mean poverty. The United States will remain a wealthy society. Rather, “affluent deprivation” signifies a state of mind. People feel poorer, because their sluggish income gains get siphoned off into higher taxes, energy costs and health spending. Though these all involve benefits, they don’t pay everyday bills or cover people’s routine pleasures. There’s an approaching collision between private and public wants—government spending for everything from retirement benefits to defense to the repair of roads and bridges.

To some observers, we are so materialistic that we can easily make sacrifices. Do we really need fancier grills or more flat-screen TVs? Of course, there’s waste and personal extravagance. But what this argument ignores is psychology. “Luxuries” quickly become “necessities”—cell phones being a recent example. “Getting ahead” feeds people’s optimism, and an upbeat society shows more “tolerance of diversity, social mobility [and a greater] commitment to fairness,” as Harvard economist Benjamin Friedman argued in a recent book. Economic growth has anchored our national self-esteem; slower growth suggests a grumpier and more contentious America.

I wonder if this is true — if, in effect, material culture has become so deeply ingrained in our ability to feel optimism and self-esteem.

Why doesn’t Joe The Plumber believe in the American spirit?

So if you’ll allow me one moment of shameless patriotism, I’d like take a moment to declare  that I am a proud American.

I’ve been thinking about this because  of Joe The Plumber. Forget all the foolishness about his book deal or potential endorsement contracts or whether he’ll run for congress. There’s an argument, or an idea, that always hovers around Joe and his ilk — and his ilk’s intellectual defenders in the intellectual and pundit classes — that’s always puzzled me:

Why are these people so cynical about Americans?

Let me explain what I mean. Read more

One last thing on oil: The Chant, baby, chant solution

Speaking of oil … I just read the phrase “drill, baby, drill” for the millionth time, and it finally occurred to me to stop and think from whence this pro-oil chant is derived.

That would be, if I’m not mistaken, “burn, baby, burn,” a phrase associated with the 1960s riots. According to BlogCritics Magazine (about which I actually know nothing, it’s just the first useful thing that Google took me to), a 1965 Newsweek article about the Watts riots included “one of the first” print references to that phrase. BlogCritics continues:

Made infamous by the riots, [the phrase] was first used by a disc jockey known as Magnificent Montague when he was working in New York and Chicago in ’63 and ’64.  He’s shout it any time a piece of soul music got him excited, and he brought it with him to Los Angeles where his listeners appropriated it for the arson that marked the riots.  During those terrible days, his station manager and even Mayor Yorty asked Magnificent Montague to give up his slogan.  He did, at least while the fires were hot, changing to:  “Have Mercy, Los Angeles!”

At first I thought, well, obviously the people chanting “Drill, baby, drill” don’t know or aren’t thinking about the phrase they are referencing.

But another possibility occurs to me.  It’s obviously a fantasy that America’s much-discussed “dependence on foreign oil” is something that can be significantly changed by domestic drilling, no matter what deregulation occurs. But maybe the chanters know that  — and are invoking the rioters of the 1960s intentionally.

That is, maybe they simply believe in the power of destructive spectacle: If we burn it all down or in this case drill it all to nothing, then somehow, from the ashes, from the ruins, a productive revolution of some kind emerges at some unspecified time in the future. Or if it doesn’t, at least some kind of pent-up emotion, or rage, has been released and spent. And when that catharsis is complete, we can sift through wreckage and the ashes and the spent remains, and start over.

If so, I can only say quote the Magnificent Montague: “Have mercy.”

Oil, alternatives, and incentives

I’m more than a week late in pointing out Roger Lowenstein’s interesting article for the Times Mag about oil and oil prices, but if you’re interested in the subject, I recommend it. In addition to explaining oil-price fluctuations more clearly than I’ve seen anybody else do it, he has some great forward-looking points.

Back when oil prices were first soaring past $125 a barrel and George Soros was blaming speculators, I started to write a post here saying I hope he’s wrong because the high price (while it seemed illogically overdone to me) was clearly focusing attention on sustainable oil alternatives, etc. I never finished writing it because, ultimately, the post I conceived sort of depended on the idea that oil prices could seriously collapse, which just seemed so outlandish to me at the time I didn’t see the point.

Anyway, so here’s Lowenstein — a writer I have a ton of respect for, very smart and very lucid — making a more sophisticated version of that point. Instead of thinking about popular opinion as a lever on policymakers, as I was, he’s thinking private industry. Basically, there’s a relationship between the price of oil and the incentives for investing in alternatives to it: “When you ask economists what the minimum oil price is to sustain the development of alternatives to gasoline — new battery systems or sugar ethanol or even wood chips — you get a range of something like $75 a barrel to maybe $150.”

Lowenstein doesn’t come out totally against oil, what he’s making a point about is oil dependence, and in what it takes to inspire companies to make the necessary investments that could lead not just to new oil reserve discovers, but to completely new alternatives.

It would be a tragedy if falling prices were to extinguish such alternatives and — given the time lag inherent in energy development — leave the country vulnerable to a yet another round of shocks… .

What the country doesn’t want is to remain dependent only on oil — to lose the urgency to develop alternatives. It happened once before. After the gas lines of the ’70s, Jimmy Carter declared that solving our energy problems was the moral equivalent of war. Then, in the 1980s, Americans forgot.

He closes by suggesting (in a revival of a Gerald Ford idea) a tax that would kick in if oil fell below $70 a barrel — basically setting a floor.

Interestingly, when the piece was written, oil was at around $80 a barrel. Today it’s at around $63.