A few weeks ago, my fiancée, Amanda, requested that I plan a date night. The romantic that I am, I was happy to plan an evening of Chinese takeout and a documentary on the Carter administration. Much to my surprise, I was later asked to plan a makeup date that more closely aligned with my fiancée's expectations than an evening of kung pao chicken and Jimmy Carter. But all was not lost, as that documentary provided me with the inspiration for this column.
By the third year of the Carter administration, the United States had a struggling economy and a growing concern about the strength of the U.S. dollar. Amid unrest in the Middle East, an abrupt spike in oil prices threatened the economic recovery and led to discussions of national energy policy to lessen the economic impact of oil prices. Leading the efforts was a president in his first term with opponents who believed he was too inexperienced to handle the weight of the situation. Sound familiar?
So what lessons apply to our current circumstances?
Jimmy Carter was right, sort of: In July 1979, at the height of the energy crisis, President Carter delivered The Malaise Speech. My political gut tells me that anytime the term malaise is used to describe a speech, it probably did not inspire the masses. However, the content of the speech was right on — a key component to national energy independence is reducing the consumption of energy.
Instability in the world energy market will eventually find its way to your ledger: Both President Carter and President Obama sought to encourage research and development as a method of reducing dependence on foreign oil. While that's great, it can have only a limited impact on our short-term economy. Without question, increases in energy prices will raise costs throughout the distribution chain. Where the United States has missed an opportunity is in encouraging American businesses to upgrade and enhance their logistical programs. HARDI has broached this subject with Congress and expressed the strong belief that a distributor with logistical operations running at a high level will be in a better position to withstand spikes in the energy market.
Since 1776, Americans do not like being told what to do: Carter made the mistake of lecturing the American people on their energy usage, and it immediately turned off the country. If we can learn one thing from Carter, it's that lecturing is not the best sales technique. In today's America, distributors and contractors have done an outstanding job of promoting high-efficiency product, explaining energy savings in an easy-to-understand manner, and creating a market where consumers are willing to pay slightly more for energy- saving products. I bet President Carter wishes he had one of our salespeople advising him before he delivered his Malaise sales pitch.
Can the Obama administration (and subsequent administrations) learn from the Carter experience and move forward a national energy policy? In the long term, an administration can enact policies that let the American entrepreneurial spirit continue to develop and distribute ever-improving energy-efficient products. In the short term, the administration can continue to promote programs that encourage energy savings. Like our nation, I believe that our industry must also take a good look at the current energy dilemma before it becomes a crisis, and seize the opportunity to be a part of the solution.
It is my hope that when I watch a documentary on the Obama administration 30 years from now, I can look back at 2011 as the year America developed a comprehensive energy policy, and not just a reminder that we punted the ball to a future generation. And it's Amanda's hope that we don't have to watch that documentary on a date night.
Jon Melchi is HARDI's government affairs manager. Contact him at 614/345-HEAT (4328) or jmelchi@HARDInet.org.