tl;dr: People continue to die because we want cheap gasoline.
We’ve had an immense amount of nonsense in the last year or two about what constitutes freedom—mostly, it appears, freedom is the right to give others covid so that you’re not burdened with the unbearable sacrifice of wearing a square of cloth across your mouth.
But as of Wednesday night, the idea of freedom got a little more real. People in Ukraine are suddenly being killed for daring to want to choose their own leaders. And people in Russia—many thousands—are bravely taking to the streets to support that choice. Those are all extremely brave people, and they deserve our deep gratitude and admiration. And we should do what we can to help them.
We’re not being asked to do much. President Biden took the prospect that we might stand militarily with Ukraine off the table early—that was probably wise, since there’s clearly not an appetite in America for helping in that way, and since actual fighting with a nuclear-armed foe run by a dead-eyed zealot is no easy thing. In fact, Biden seems to me to be doing a very steady job in the deepest crisis since 9/11—our impulsive and rash reaction then led us down a terrible path of stupid wars. This time he’s corralling allies, drawing up sanctions, doing what he can to hold together a democratic world order against autocrats abroad (and Fox News at home).
But he’s fighting with one hand tied behind his back, because he feels he can’t do the most obvious thing, which would be to shut off the flow of Russian oil and gas to the world. And the reason, above all, is that he worries it would raise gas prices to a point where Americans would refuse to support our efforts. As one State Dept. official explained to the Wall Street Journal, “Doing anything that affects … or halts energy transactions would have a great impact on the United States, American citizens and our allies. So our intention here is to impose the hardest sanctions we can while trying to safeguard the American public and the rest of the world from those measures.”
This is sad. The last time a European autocrat sent tanks speeding across the plains to subjugate sovereign nations we (eventually) responded by sending millions of men off to war and sacrificing everything about our domestic economy in order to produce the armaments needed to fight. This time America’s burden involves…paying higher gas prices. And for many that’s too much. Continuing the uninterrupted enjoyment of our national fleet of grotesquely oversized SUVs and pickups is more important to some significant part of our population than standing beside brave people running real and terrible risks. There are Americans who can’t afford the fuel to heat their homes—we need to assist them. But the loudest whiners are people who have decided that freedom comes for free.
The way to square this circle, of course, is to rapidly build out renewable energy, and the electric vehicles that can use it. That step would make standing by the victims of this autocratic thug almost painless (along with, you know, helping save the planet). Once you have an EV gas prices are not a worry—electric rates do not jump up and down, and the fueling costs are radically lower anyway. Where once we built tanks to defend democracy, now we need to build air source heat pumps and EV chargers, along with electric buses and bike lanes. President Biden is warning the oil companies not to price-gouge, but of course they will—we need to break their power. And one way to do that is to quickly build out clean energy technology, everywhere we can.
But in the meantime, perhaps Americans could suck it up for a few months. Think about people who are paying a real price.