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Hatin' those oil companies

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted December 21, 2009

Back in Canada's olden days, yeomen in the Province of Alberta were made fun of because of their complaints against the main railroad, the Canadian Pacific Railway. Running jokes went something like this: "What does an Alberta farmer say when his crops don't bring what they should? 'That goddamn CPR'. What does an Alberta farmer say when it doesn't rain enough? 'That goddamn CPR'. What does an Alberta farmer say when he mispronounces the Lord's Prayer? 'That goddamn CPR'. What does an Alberta farmer say when his carriage gets stuck in the ditch? 'That goddamn CPR'." And, perhaps, "What does an Alberta farmer say when his daughter starts nagging him? 'That God-damned CPR!'"

What a change a century makes. Now, an Albertan oil guy can turn it flat around. "What does an Ontarian say when gas prices go up? 'Those God-damned oil companies' What does an Ontarian say when the weather's colder than he thought? 'Those God-damned oil companies'. What does an Ontarian say when the roof can't be fixed right away? 'Those God-damned oil companies'. What does an Ontarian say when a good driver has to pass him by using the driver's lane? 'Those God-damned oil companies'." And, inevitably: "What does an Ontarian say when his daughter starts nagging him? 'Oh, those God-damned under-regulated under-taxed evil oil companies!'"

But Why The Oil Companies?

Democracy isn't perfect, and one of its drawbacks is that policy is occasionally made under the aegis of pet hates (if widespread…or if spread widely.) Normally, pet hates are shrugged off. People who nurse them are seen as axe-grinders. Some, though, manage to stick – and the hostility towards the oil companies is one that has.

There's an interesting parallel between the oil companies and the upper-middle class. Upper middles have a definite class consciousness, and bond easily with others of the same station. If you've made a pile of money, aren't obnoxious or are obnoxious in a colorful way, and you've made your pile at least semi-legitimately, you will be welcomed into the upper-middle class. Ancestry, religion, ethnic background, and other antecedents won't count against you. Anyone who's observed upper-middle-class people know it well: they pride themselves on being free of such prejudices. All that matters is achievement; if you've made it, you've made it. Backbiters are not welcome.

This bond is cemented though what upper middles see as humanity's main failing: jealousy and/or envy. Their worldview divides people into two categories: the successful, and the jealous. Successful people identify with successful people. Anyone who doesn't is jealous. All the unexplainable troubles hobbling successful people can be explained by jealousies.

This worldview explains why upper-middle class people find it easy to set aside ethnic, religious and other differences. Anyone who doesn't would be thought of as jealous!

Some complacently leave it at that; others are more bothered. They're the type who tend to see social progress as eliminating jealousies. The less jealousy there is, the more people can succeed in their chosen paths. The more unshackled people are from jealousies, the richer and better the world will be. All hatreds are jealousies writ large. Thus, the same tools to drain jealousies will also drain hatreds.

And, of course, there's one tried-and-true emollient for jealousy: letting the jealous ones have a piece of the action. Whether it be smoothing the upward climb or spreading around the bounty, whether it be raising self-esteem or draining others' intolerance, treating the jealous as people who got a raw deal in life is the alpha and omega of upper-middle-class liberalism.

Unsurprisingly, this kind of liberalism (and radicalism) suffuses the universities. It's in a university's best interest to have its successful alumni remember their college days fondly. What better way than to tailor "social justice" to the upper-middle-class worldview? In a merit-based society, that's where the money and the power are. Besides, critics can then be easily waved away as…jealous.

Any liberal or radical that: equates "social justice" with compensatory payoffs; sees tolerance as an unalloyed good; assumes that any complainer from a disadvantaged group is really complaining about not getting enough; believes that the merit system can be free of unfairness if tweaked properly; and sees the opinionated as either a joke or a threat, is of the upper-middle class. It's no secret that upper-middle-class conservatives have a soft spot for this kind of liberal.

Oil companies are, or at least were until recently, the upper middle class of corporations. Oil tycoons were the ultimate sudden-success story. Finding a huge field of oil, in legend and fable, was the ultimate Horatio Alger dream. Anyone, no matter how straitened, could shoot all the way up to Mansion Acres on a huge, cornucopic jet of oil. All it took was one lucky bore hole…

Of course, finding the stuff is a lot harder – and usually much more expensive - than these legends let on. Once found, though, a large oil deposit gushes up a lot of wealth. It seems to be Nature's bounty, pouring up all on its own. The seeming ease of oil wealth makes an oil company a natural jealousy magnet.

Only, the oil tycoons had their own take on the jealousy factor. Instead of "they're just jealous and want some of the action," top oil guys used "they're just greedy and are angling for a payoff." I think all major scandals involving oil companies, or oil operators, can be fit into this framework.

An objection comes easily to mind: if big oil companies are the cynosure of the upper-middle-class world, then why do so many upper-middle-class people disidentify with them?

The typical oilfield worker is physical. They typical oil-company boss is a tough-guy geologist or petroleum engineer. Both kinds of people tend to be opinionated. As noted above, opinionated people don't fit well into the upper-middle class world; they're too inclined to be intolerant. That's why the oil companies ended up being the bad boys of the upper middle-class: oil magnates tend to be the intolerant type, or at least tend to be tolerant of certain intolerances. ESR

Daniel M. Ryan is currently watching The Gold Bubble.


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