In the film-noir movie "Key Largo," a scheming Edward G. Robinson brags about manipulating an election by continually "counting votes" — until he reached the proper "outcome." "Yeah," says Robinson’s character, "how many of those guys in office owe everything to me? I made ’em. Yeah, I made ’em, just like a tailor makes a suit of clothes. . . . Get my boys to bring the voters out, and then count the votes over and over again ’til they added up right and he was elected."
This brings us to Federal Trade Commission (FTC) head Deborah Platt Majoras, ordered by Congress to investigate allegations of price fixing and manipulation by "Big Oil." Pre-Katrina, the FTC found no evidence of wrongdoing. After Katrina, Congress again ordered the FTC to investigate allegations of price fixing, market manipulation and gouging.
But the FTC again struck out, finding no evidence of collusion. An angry Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) refused to accept the outcome, incredibly suggesting perhaps the FTC, itself, should be investigated for failing to come up with the right conclusion! Check out this insulting and condescending exchange:
Boxer: "I’m very disappointed in this report. I think it’s a whitewash, and worse. And we’re going to keep working, even if it doesn’t involve the FTC. Maybe we need to investigate the FTC."
Majoras: "I’m sorry you’re displeased with the FTC. I’ve never wanted to make this personal, but if you have any doubt whatsoever about my caring, and my empathy, and my background of working class, for the people of America, then I would like to suggest that you spend some time with me, because nobody who works with me doubts that for one second."
Unable to attack the FTC’s evidence, Boxer tried a different tack. She accused Majoras of ignoring "the little guy."
Boxer: "So when you talk to working people, what is it they tell you, Ms. Majoras, about the price of gas at the pump?" (For the record, Majoras grew up in Meadville, Pa., a town of 13,000. She says she knew no lawyers, but her father encouraged her to work hard and believe in herself. By contrast, Sen. Boxer lists as her major assets a blind trust worth $1 million to $5 million, a condo in Washington worth $100,000 to $250,000, interest in an Oakland office building, and some stock holdings. In her book, "Nine and Counting," Boxer describes growing up in a "nice middle-class section of Brooklyn," with a mother who "spoke sympathetically of women who ‘had to’ work.")
Majoras: "Well, they tell me a number of things. They tell me that they’re concerned about gasoline prices and what it’s doing to their budgets. They also tell me, though, such things as, well, it doesn’t make them happy to see the big profits that our oil companies are making. Nonetheless, they’ve sold houses in the past, and they understand that when a certain product sometimes is scarce, or the value of a product goes up, they don’t give back money, even if the value of their house has gone up, and they can sell it for more than that which they bought it — "
Boxer: "Wait a minute. Working people, when they talk to you about gas prices, tell [you] about selling their house?"
Majoras: "Absolutely, because that’s where — "
Boxer: "How many people?"
Majoras: "It just happened last week, as a matter of fact."
Boxer: "How many people have done that, have come up to you and said, ‘Oh, I understand the oil companies are doing these profits, because if I sold my house, I wouldn’t give back my profit’? Is that what you’re saying they tell you about gas prices?"
Majoras: "A number of people have used that analogy, because it’s been in — it’s an analogy that they’ve seen in many of the major newspapers in this country, where the analogy is made. And this is — you know, as a seller, this is the one place where consumers really relate to buying and selling. And so, yes, they have said this. They have said this to me."
Boxer: "Well, let me say this, I’m interested in this, Mr. Chairman. And I’m going to stop. But I will go home — I will go home and see if anyone brings up their house when they’re talking about gas prices."
Many throw out the term "McCarthyism" whenever they accuse the government of embarking on a witch hunt — a preconceived conclusion of guilt no matter the evidence. McCarthy, however, actually found a serious threat of communist infiltration at the highest levels of government.
Some of the numerous state and federal probes into alleged price fixing by "Big Oil" resulted in the accused settling their cases by paying small fines with no admission of guilt. But as to the smoking gun of market manipulation, the investigations continue to dig dry holes. So, by all means, keep investigating. And after investigating the results, let’s just investigate the investigators — until we get the right result.