In 1977, responding to the difficult energy outlook brought on by the Arab Oil Embargo, President Jimmy Carter created the position of Secretary of Energy and chose James Schlesinger as America’s first “energy czar.” Previously Schlesinger had served as Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Director of Central Intelligence, and Secretary of Defense, and in his early days he taught economics at the University of Virginia. I was tickled by a story – undoubtedly apocryphal – about his days in academia that made the rounds when Schlesinger was in his new energy post.
As the story went, Schlesinger was such a convincing evangelist for capitalism that two students in his economics class decided to go into business after graduation. Their plan was to borrow money from a bank, buy a truck, and use it to pick up firewood purchased in the Virginia countryside, which they would then sell to the grandees in Georgetown. Schlesinger wholeheartedly endorsed their entrepreneurial leanings, and they proceeded with great enthusiasm. From the start of their venture, the former students could barely keep up with the demand.
Thus it came as quite a shock when their banker called to tell them the balance in their account had reached zero and the truck was about to be repossessed. They contacted Schlesinger, and he listened attentively as they recounted their experience: they had, in fact, been able to acquire vast amounts of wood for $50 a cord, and they’d been able to sell all they had for $40 a cord. How could they be broke? Where had they gone wrong? Schlesinger puffed on his ever-present pipe and said: “The answer’s obvious: you need a bigger truck.”