The Term 'Big Oil' Unfairly Generalizes the Energy Industry

Stereotyping the oil industry, unions, or environmentalists means they're judged by what they are, not what they do.

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Michael Lynch is the president and director of global petroleum service at Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

Recent references to "Big Oil" reminded me of a talk show where someone mentioned the theory that "the Jews" were behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the comedian Susie Essman joked that she must have missed that meeting. Sadly, our political discourse is often misinformed by such sweeping generalizations, less these days about ethnic or religious groups than organizations or professions.

A super PAC ad attempts to tar Mitt Romney with the Big Oil brush, and a liberal blogger went to extraordinary lengths to explain that Koch Industries was, in fact, a Big Oil company (even though they are much more diversified). A little oddly, it is assumed that everyone knows why Big Oil is bad; no one ever explains it. And yes, just as the left demonized "the banks" and Big Oil, conservatives often blast "the unions" or "the environmentalists" with similar opprobrium.

True, some stereotypes are valid: Unions can be counted on to focus on workers' issues, not corporate profitability; Big Oil produces oil, they don't promote social welfare; and so forth. But whenever one says, "The X do Y" it's generally meant to be pejorative.

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Why is Big Oil bad? Apparently, it's partly because they are big, although not all industries with large companies receive the same distaste. IBM and General Motors have received criticism in the past for their domination of their industries, but no one says Big Computers or Big Auto. And oil itself is apparently not so bad: Before the oil crises, politicians often sought to assist so-called "mom and pop" oil companies.

The reality is that people should be judged by what they do, not by broad labels. A union official who protects an unfairly dismissed worker is good, one who promotes featherbedding is bad. An oil company that is inattentive to safety is bad, one that produces fuel at reasonable prices is good. (Don't think so? Ride a bicycle to the hospital next time you break a leg.)

There is a simple test: Before making a statement like, "The banks are profiting from human misery," or "The unions are bankrupting our city," imagine if you substituted a racial or religious group's name, such as "blacks, Jews, Irish, Baptists," for the subject of the sentence. If it was your group, and you would feel offended, you shouldn't be making the characterization. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on gas prices.]

Because after all, these groups always consist of an aggregation of individuals, and, sadly, there will always be good and bad amongst them. And true, sometimes an organization will have a corrupt culture, but that is no excuse for condemning all similar organizations. The Teamsters' Union was famously corrupt, but that doesn't mean all unions are bad, or even that all Teamsters were bad. Enron committed financial fraud, but trading firms as a class are not all fraudulent. To paint all organizations with the same brush is evidence of prejudice on your part more than a shortcoming on the part of those whom you dislike.  Such prejudices against groups seems to be part and parcel of the polarization of politics, as party affiliation almost always determines which groups are demonized, and it is uncommon to find a politician with a more nuanced view. I once failed to get a senior Republican to admit that environmentalists had made some positive contributions, and liberal Democrats can be counted on to condemn banks and oil companies without fail. 

Needless to say, making distinctions between good or bad groups and people involves a lot more thought and effort than relying on sweeping generalizations, but it leads to much better policymaking. And it is also much fairer to judge people and organizations by their deeds, not by their nature or background.

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