Darkly gray, wickedly windy, and yet unseasonably hot. That’s the weather outside as I type this on the 7th day of March, 2022, and that’s also the vibe as our winter of despair winds down. The Ukraine news is as dark as the day and unrelentingly depressing, as Russia’s evil yet ill-conceived invasion becomes a deadly quagmire. The heat? Either it’s climate change or the gates of hell opening wide to greet Putin.
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In a gas crisis sparked by Putin’s crimes in Ukraine, Biden wants us to drive more. Huh?
Thanks to violent conflict overseas, gas prices soared across America. A Democratic president elected in the wake of Republican scandal was seeing his poll numbers plummet, amid public anger. The year was 1979, and a leading economist had an outside-the-box solution that he sold to the Washington Post as an op-ed.
Under the headline, “Working At Home Can Save Gasoline,” Frank Schiff noted that if just 10% of the workforce could stay home a couple of days, it would offset the Iran-crisis-related supply shortages that were causing long lines and astronomical prices at the pump. And Schiff thought that the day when even more employees would be able to work from home might be at hand. He talked about remarkable gains in technology, and fantasized — remember, this was Sept. 2, 1979 — that not far in the future we’d see “machines that combine the functions of television sets, videophones, computer terminals, electronic files, and word and data processing systems and that can be directly connected with offices and other homes.”
Bingo! Schiff, who died in 2006 at the age of 85, didn’t live to attend a company going-away party on Zoom, or jump at the distinctive ping of your boss’ Slack DMs, but his piece should have won the Pulitzer Prize in the prescience category (which I just made up). Except it wasn’t high gasoline prices that finally caused much of America’s “knowledge economy” — or 35% of the total workforce at the peak in spring 2020 — to work from home, but rather the health risks of a pandemic.
Nonetheless, working much of the time from home — as more than 20% of U.S. employees are still doing — has also reduced car commuting, just as Schiff predicted. The exact numbers are unclear, but some studies say telecommuting at the current rate reduces U.S. gasoline use by 30 million gallons per day. That curbs greenhouse-gas pollution — not a top-line concern in 1979, but it is now — as well as our dependence on foreign sources of oil. And reduced demand should, according to the laws of economics, ease the current inflation.
What’s not to like?
That’s why I was flabbergasted to see President Biden declare — just last week, when gasoline prices were lifting off amid the worsening conflict in Ukraine — that it’s time for America’s remote workers to return to the office. “It’s time for America to get back to work and fill our great downtowns again with people,” the 46th president said in his State of the Union address, not raising the subject of how those workers might get there.
I get it. Biden faces tremendous cross-currents from the pandemic to Vladimir Putin. On the remote-work question, the president is rightly concerned about the economic impact on big-city small-business owners as well as the social isolation that many face in working from home. On the other hand, surveys suggest most workers aren’t especially eager to go back to the office — with the end of the long daily commute especially popular.
Here’s where the Ukraine situation becomes the X factor. Biden’s approach to forcing the Russian leader to end his invasion is built heavily on economic sanctions, and the moves so far — against Russia’s banks and its billionaire oligarchs — are having a strong effect. But experts say the surest way to bring Putin and his war machine to their knees is closing the lucrative spigot of oil and gas imports to Europe and the United States.
Biden’s initial hesitancy to enact a U.S. ban on Russian fossil fuels was, again, understandable. The administration is getting hammered politically for rising gas prices and for wider inflation, for which energy costs are a major contributor. The amount of Russian fuel that America imports isn’t a lot — about 20.4 million barrels of crude and refined products a month, on average, or 8% of total imports — but it’s just enough to possibly make motorists nostalgic for the current rate of over $4 per gallon. Still, as I was finishing work on this newsletter Tuesday morning, several news outlets were reporting that Biden would impose the Russian oil-and-gas import ban later in the day.
But imagine the added impact of 20 million Americans suddenly getting off their couch and driving into the office at the exact same time Russian gasoline goes off the market. This is the other gob-smacking aspect of Team Biden’s approach to the growing energy crisis. Instead of focusing on curbing demand for fossil fuels, the White House seems almost single-mindedly focused on increasing the supply of fossil fuels, at least on U.S. soil.
The latest is a stunning report from Axios that the administration — which came into office with a tough stance on the Saudi dictators who murdered a Washington Post journalist among their myriad human rights abuses — now wants to cozy up to the butchers of Riyadh, with the goal of amping up oil production. In other words, the U.S. plan for stopping Putin, a war criminal, who is dropping bombs on Ukraine, is to ban his oil but then to make up for it by buying fossil fuels from the Saudi war criminals who are dropping bombs on Yemen. That’s insane, or as New Jersey Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski posted on Twitter Monday: “If the alternative to relying on a Russian tyrant’s oil is a Saudi tyrant’s oil, maybe we should be less reliant on oil?”
Indeed. The conventional wisdom is that America can’t ween itself off fossil fuels and defeat climate change without unpopular sacrifices. In the long run, that may be true. But remote work doesn’t just reduce our fuel demand. It’s actually popular with most — not all, but a majority — of the workers affected by it. Biden must encourage working from home and not call for its demise.
The future of the workplace is a debate worth having, but not in the middle of a gas crisis. Just think, the next time you’re sitting on your daily Zoom meeting, reminding your boss to unmute, with your car parked in the driveway, you’ll also be sending a message to Vladimir Putin: Take your gas and shove it!
Yo, do this
I’ve been mad at myself for these last few months for ignoring the final days of Pennsylvania GOP Sen. Pat Toomey, who seems determined to help out every last big bank or gas driller on his way out the door. Luckily, one of the greats of modern journalism, the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, is on the case. Her latest piece looks at the unseemly Senate GOP campaign to keep Sarah Bloom Raskin (who, yes, is married to this guy) off the Federal Reserve Board, mainly because she had the audacity to question why the U.S. central bank was bailing out Big Oil companies in a time of climate change. Mayer places Toomey at the center of the anti-Raskin effort, and notes he’s received more than $1 million in fossil-fuel donations in his Senate career. An important piece, and a good read.
I’m also here to remind you again about 🎉 the brand-new Will Bunch Culture Club 🎉 and the need to read Garrett M. Graff’s Watergate: A New History between now and March 30, when Graff joins me for a special Inquirer LIVE conversation. (🗓 Please register here). I’m about 30% through the book on Audible and, unsurprisingly, I love it — even the revelation that two key villains of the early 1970s scandal-to-end-all-scandals, E. Howard Hunt and Charles Colson, cemented their friendship in the alumni club of our shared alma mater, Brown University. Read this book — you’ll learn a lot!
Ask me anything
Question: Should the U.S. promote a no-fly zone over Ukraine? — Via Kate Krauss (@_lightningfield) on Twitter
Answer: Absolutely not — at this time. The U.S. strategy so far — and, to his credit, pretty much what President Biden and his team have been doing — is pretty simple: Do everything possible that will thwart Russia’s invasion and preserve Ukraine’s independence without triggering the actual World War III. Economic sanctions do that, but a “no-fly zone” really means armed aerial combat between America (and presumably the rest of NATO) and Russia, which could spiral out-of-control quickly. I’ve been alarmed at the pundits who — perhaps drunk on watching the U.S. exercise brutal air power in 20-plus years of conflict against enemies who don’t have nuclear weapons (albeit with mixed results) — are cavalierly calling for American steps that would pour gasoline on the fire in Eastern Europe. Part of showing strength is showing restraint where it’s needed.
History lesson on the SATs, LSATs, and the Ketanji Brown Jackson flap
Like most things that made life worse, the SATs started as a brilliant idea that was sure to make things better. The problem in the early 20th century was blue-blooded elitism on America’s college campus, with discrimination against outsider groups, especially Jews. Invented in 1926, the SAT was quickly embraced by top schools as an objective way to ensure what Harvard’s then-president called “a natural aristocracy.” Over time, that idea crumbled, as wealthy parents paid thousands of dollars on test prep classes to restore an advantage for elites. When compounded with other roadblocks like “legacy admissions” for the kids of rich alums, critics began to see the over-reliance on standardized test scores not as a mark of actual meritocracy, but as a tool of maintaining elite white supremacy.
That’s why it was outrageous yet not at all surprising when Fox News resident jerk Tucker Carlson cited such a test in going after Ketanji Brown Jackson, President Biden’s pick to become the first Black woman Supreme Court justice in American history. Despite Brown Jackson’s impressive record on the bench (especially when compared to the fairly thin resume of the latest GOP-backed justice, Amy Coney Barrett), Carlson dialed up his segregation-era tropes and tried to define the Harvard Law grad as an affirmative action hire. He demanded to see her scores on the law-school cousin of the SAT, the LSAT. The Fox provocateur said knowing how KBJ scored on an admissions test back in 1993 would somehow “settle the question conclusively as to whether she’s a ‘once-in-a-generation’ legal talent.” In reality, Carlson was saying a quiet part out loud — that if standardized tests like the SATs and LSATs are there to help white folks, then let’s deploy them that way.
Inquirer reading list
In my Sunday column, I took a step back from the Ukraine mess to look at the recent polling data showing most Americans not only reject the recent Republican fad of banning books about race or LGBTQ topics from schools and libraries, but also want their kids to learn uncomfortable truths about racism in America. I even proposed a TV ad in which Democrats take the offensive on this issue — not their strong point — and convince midterm voters that today’s GOP is un-American.
Over the weekend, I reviewed the latest bombshell disclosures in the ongoing January 6 investigations, including the court filing from the House Select Committee asserting its evidence that Donald Trump was involved in a criminal conspiracy and fraud in promoting the Big Lie around the 2020 election and the subsequent insurrection. In a moment when folks around the world are redefining political courage, will Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department find the bravery to prosecute this conspiracy?
Even after two years of rising gun violence and jarring headlines, Philadelphia was shocked last week by an incident in which cops shot a 12-year-old boy in the back, killing him. Police say they were fired upon by youths and that Thomas “TJ” Siderio Jr. had a 9mm semi-automatic handgun. There are conflicting accounts about whether Siderio had dropped that weapon, and whether the plainclothes officers involved had identified themselves. In a blistering editorial, The Inquirer voiced its outrage over the incident and the downward spiral of gun violence, and called for an independent probe — noting the history of why the police version alone simply can’t be trusted. A big city like Philadelphia demands an independent voice for justice. Support that voice by subscribing to The Inquirer.