Pressure is mounting on the U.S. government to hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the death of American-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Our complicated relationship with the kingdom, held together for decades by oil and arms, narrows our palette of options.
Nobel-Prize winning economist, Dr. Robert Shiller, is one of the top economists in the nation, actually, let’s make him an imperialist, in the world. He is best known, perhaps, as the co-creator of the S&P/Case Shiller Home Price Indices. His books on economic theory and issues populate many college classrooms and personal libraries, including mine. He is an impressive, smart and accomplished intellectual giant.
It’s tough, given Dr. Shiller’s pedigree, to even suggest a bit of criticism. But because I think it’s important to current policy debates concerning economic, energy and transportation fuel policies, I do want to take issue with his recent short piece in Project Syndicate (What Good Are Economists?). In it, he defends economists and their mistakes concerning economic forecasts.
Shiller seems oversensitive to the pervasive criticism of economists in the media and literature. Because of the esteem with which he deservedly is held, his somewhat-thin response may mute a needed dialogue concerning the weaknesses attributed by respected critics of the work of economists. Shiller admits they failed to warn the nation in advance of economic downturns as far back as 1920-1921. By implication, he also suggests that because of this fact economists did not have a major impact or may have even had a negative impact at the policy table and often gave up their places to business and political leaders. Certainly Dr. Lawrence Summers and Alan Greenspan have not escaped criticism for failing to predict both the recent recession and for instituting policies that may have exacerbated the recession itself.
Over the past several years, many Americans have been frustrated by the errors of omission and commission made by respected economists from America’s think tanks and its government institutions, like the EIA, concerning analyses, forecasts and predications of the price of oil and gas as well as, demand for and supply of fuel and the role alternative fuels have and will play in America’s future economy. Their numbers and analyses often seem like the “once a day” or maybe “once a month” variety. Many of you don’t remember the famous (now clearly seen as a sexist) joke by I believe Ilka Chase in the old Reader’s Digest that a “woman’s mind is cleaner than a man’s because she changes it so often.” The comment now fits many energy-related economists. Their minds may be cleaner than those of normal folks because, as seen in many of their energy and fuel forecasts, they change it so often. But by doing so, they present obstacles to government, congressional leaders, industry, academic and environmental officials anxious to develop sound energy and fuel policies and program initiatives.
Can you name — on more than one hand — the economists who predicted the recent significant decline of oil and gasoline prices? Can you find consensus among economists concerning oil and fuel prices in the future? Can you identify economists willing to go out on a limb and describe, other than in generalities, the causes of the current decline in prices? Put two economists in a room and you will get three or more different reasons, most resting on opinion and not on hard data. Paraphrasing, oh, yes, the reason(s) are (or is): the Saudi Kingdom and its unwillingness to limit production and desires to gain market share; another favorite: the American producer’s recent oil shale largess is too good to pass up by slowing down drilling significantly; and don’t forget: the rise of the value of the dollar and the fall off in travel mileages resulting from the global recession. For the politically susceptible and sometimes cynical economists, throw in the genius of American and Saudi foreign policy as a factor. They fail to sleep at night, believing the decline is the purposeful result of the State Department and/or their counterparts in the Kingdom. If you keep prices low, who does it hurt most…Russia, Iran and Venezuela, of course!
There are many theories concerning recent price declines but no real hard answers based on empirical evidence and factor analysis.
Energy and transportation fuel economists, at times, seem to practice art rather than science. Diverse methodologies used to forecast oil and gasoline prices; demand and supply are unable to easily manage or accommodate the likely involved complex economic, technical, geopolitical and behavioral factors. As a result, specific cause and effect relationships among and between independent and dependent variables concerning oil and gas trends are difficult to discern by expert and lay folks alike.
Understandably, American leaders often appear to value what they feel are the good artists among economists, particularly if they lend credence in their speeches and reports to their own views or ideological predilections. Shiller’s question about economists in his piece is not a difficult one to answer. He asks, “If they were unable to foresee something (the 2007-2009 financial crisis and recession) so important to people’s wellbeing, what good are they?”
The best in the profession have provided insights into the economy and what makes it tick or not tick. They, at times, have increased public understanding of corrective public and private-sector actions to right a weak economy. They, again at times, have helped lead to at least temporary consensus concerning options related to fiscal and monetary policy changes and the need for regulations of private sector activities. But Dr. Shiller goes too far when he offers a mea culpa for the profession by comparing its failure to predict economic trends to doctors who fail to predict disease. Doctors probably do suffer more than economists for their mistakes, particularly when their analyses result in increased rates of morbidity and mortality. At least economists can bury their errors in next week’s or next month’s studies or reports; many times doctors can escape their errors only by burying their patients. The article could have been a provocative and an important one, given Dr. Shiller’s justifiable stature. It might have stimulated self examination among some of the best and brightest if it had linked weaknesses in economic forecasts to proposals to strengthen the rigor of methodological approaches. Presently, the brief article regrettably reads as an excuse for professional deficiencies. Res ipsa loquitur.
Early on I wrote a column about an unanticipated Thanksgiving dinner conversation with a special operations soldier who had served in Iraq. His comment, in response to a question I asked about whether he and his buddies knew why they were sent to Iraq, was brief and blunt: “oil and U.S. security.” He would have none of what he thought was b.s. about “freedom and democracy” or “weapons of mass destruction.” Before I asked the question I actually already knew what his answer would be, but a glass of wine, a wonderful piece of turkey and good company suggested that my inquiry would lead to an opening for a longer repartee on the Middle East and U.S. policy. It did, and again oil and oil politics were the dominant theme.
I suspect that many of the writers of today’s headlines and op-ed articles anticipated Republican Eric Cantor would win. They are now arguing, in sometimes misleading reference terms concerning democracy, inter-sectarian harmony and morality, for a more aggressive U.S. policy toward the invasion by Sunni radicals of parts of what once on a map called the nation of Iraq.
But the real issue for many “experts,” I again suspect, is oil — a fear, whether factual or not, that if Iraq collapses, the world oil supply (already close to equilibrium concerning demand and supply) will relatively quickly reflect shortages and much higher prices per barrel of oil ($150 a barrel) and oil’s product, gasoline ($5 and more).
Should we be sending kids to fight for our apparent God-given right to Middle Eastern oil? Although I think a lot about the ethics of public decision making, I am not an ethicist. But as long as there are alternatives to supply, my hard-nosed policy advice would be against war or the steps that might lead to war. Iraq has not been the noble state that welcomed America in to rescue it ostensibly from Saddam Hussein. Its form of democracy has been limited, corrupt and sectarian.
What should our calculations be, concerning alternative supplies of oil? First, we ought to really think through whether a full or partial shutdown of Iraqi oil wells will mean a damn. Iraq alone supplies a small share of U.S. oil imports. Most of the often-shrill economic coverage of the radical Sunni invasion and its potential impact on U.S. oil seems to relate more to perceptions, not empirical evidence, about shortages and prices. Commentators “perceive” what the oil markets might or will do — really what oil speculators and investors will or will not do — based on what is currently happening in Iraq, not on facts on the ground. Neil Cavuto of Fox Business said, “Oil is a commodity, a global commodity, and like any stock in almost any market, it often trades on issues having little to do with basic fundamentals, and more to do with simple fear.”
Assuming, however, there is a real worldwide shortage of oil as a result of a closure of Iraqi wells, or that fear drives the prices up so much that there is a strain to the economy, the Saudis, probably, among all the OPEC nations, are the only ones with sufficient oil in the ground to make an immediate difference concerning supply. But will they? They have shown some flexibility in the past to U.S. petitioning. They have also, at times, despite their security relationship to the U.S., turned us down. This time around the Saudis could well be more than a bit sensitive, particularly if it looks like the radical Sunnis might win. The Kingdom is vulnerable with respect to a radical brand of Sunniism. I bet they also fear a potential Shiite effort to push the radicals back, particularly one led by Iran. Life is never simple for the House of Saud.
Okay, where are we? Oil is sold in an international marketplace. No matter which side you are on regarding the Keystone XL pipeline, if approved and completed, it will not have a major impact on U.S. gas supply or prices. Ask your friendly oil refinery or oil company executive where he or she believes Keystone-supplied oil will be going. Most of the assumed supply will be traded internationally for the highest global price. The predicted increased supply of U.S.-produced gasoline will probably help diminish price increases slightly, but don’t make a bet on how much. Today, a price of a gallon of regular unleaded gasoline is well over $4 in California and U.S. production is at a very high level.
What would likely help keep gasoline prices from spiking significantly and, at the same time, lessen the amplitude of the cycles is a commitment to competition in the fuel marketplace. Let Adam Smith reign! Allow safe, cheaper, environmentally better replacement fuels, particularly natural gas-based ethanol (and someday soon, methanol) to compete with gasoline. Encourage the conversion of older vehicles to flex-fuel vehicles! Push for renewable fuels and related vehicles that appeal to a larger market than at present, given costs and design constraints! Reduce our dependence on imported oil! Make love, not war! Drive (excuse the pun) for strategic solutions!