June 23, 2008
The telling moment last week was Robert Hirsch's appearance on the CNBC morning "Squawkbox" financial show in which he proposed the probability of $500-a-barrel oil within "a three-to-five-year time-frame." Squawkhead Becky Quick was clearly nonplussed by the stolid Mr. Hirsch, author of a (then)-startling 2005 US Dept of Energy report (since referred to as the Hirsch Report and buried by the Secretary of Energy) that warned of dire effects on the American way of life as the Peak Oil predicament gained traction.
Perhaps more reality-challenged was the uber-idiot Larry Kudlow on CNBC's night-time money show, who kept repeating the mantra "drill, drill drill" when presented with signs that something other than "oil speculators" was driving up the price and creating global scarcity. These idiots always return to the shibboleth that "there's plenty of oil out there." What they don't get is that even while the world is enjoying the all time peak of production (somewhere around 85-million barrels-a-day), that same world is demanding at least 86-million barrels -- so even though there's more oil than ever, there's not enough. And the gap is only bound to get bigger.
The difference between what's available and what's demanded is being felt by poor countries and poor people in richer countries. Third world nations lacking their own oil are simply dropping out of the bidding, and the lower classes in the US are having to choose between buying gasoline and velveeta. The floods in the corn belt will surely aggravate the problem here in the USA. Lunch breaks may soon be a thing of the past for WalMart Associates. Maybe they'll just play video games on their cell phones in the parking lot to allay their hunger.
Meanwhile the notion that drilling drilling drilling offshore the US and up in Alaska will solve this problem shows how incredibly misinformed the news media itself is. The probability is next to zero that anything found off California or Florida would even fractionally offset ongoing depletion in the handful of old, established super-giant fields that the world gets most of it oil from. By the way, I support the idea of drilling in Alaska's ANWAR reserve because I think it can be done in a sanitary way and, more importantly, it would get the idiot cornucopian right-wing assholes to finally shut up about it -- before they discover that it contains less than half a year's oil supply for the US at current rates of use.
Also on the "meanwhile" front, the OPEC meeting Sunday at Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was simply a desperate dodge, a mummery, a kabuki theater of powerlessness. Once again, the Saudis are pretending that they can increase their production -- in essence, pretending that they actually have some power in the game. As Jeffrey Brown has pointed out on TheOilDrum.com, the Kingdom will still show a steady three-year decline over their 2005 production rates even if they're able to goose current output as much as they say they will in 2008.
All this reality content is beginning to penetrate the collective consciousness in the US, but the result is mostly panic or paralyzed disbelief rather than any set of intelligent responses. For example, I got a call from one of Katie Couric's producers at CBS news on Friday. Somehow, they had noticed that oil prices were becoming a problem in America. They called me for a comment. The scary part was they were clearly treating the issue as a "lifestyle" story. Did I think more suburbanites would move downtown? And would that be a good thing...? They have no fucking clue how broadly and deeply these dynamics will affect the life of this nation, or even our ability to remain a nation. Also, by the way, this demonstrates how the nightly network news has become the equivalent of the old "women's pages" of the daily newspapers.
The parallel universe of the financial world is showing the strain of all this oil anxiety -- since, after all, oil is the primary resource for running industrial economies. It has been some time since the banker boyz embarked on their fateful venture to alchemize a new mutant strain of investment instruments to replace the tired old stocks and bonds which represented the hope for production of surplus wealth from industrial activity -- now mooted by the oil story. The idea of the mutant investments was to produce wealth with no real wealth-producing activity. This old trick, formerly known as Ponzi finance or a "pyramid scheme," was naturally self-limiting, and in a way that would prove ultimately very destructive to society as a whole. In fact, it has fatally undermined the legitimacy of the entire financial system, and a state of comprehensive nausea has set in as we all witness the dissolving foundation of the US economy under a tsunami of debt that will never be repaid.
The markets seem to know this, the more vocal playerz are squawking more about it, some banks are issuing frightening "duck-and-cover" warnings, using horror movie phrases such as "...worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s..." and the general public is sinking into the quicksand of bankruptcy, repossession, and ruin. I haven't been to any lawn parties in the Hamptons this year, but I imagine that eczematous anxiety rashes are competing with suntans and Versace separates out there this year. Really, we're right back where we were last year about this time, only worse. Oil has doubled, food is outasight, the levees have broken, the people who run things are shitting their pants, and everybody is waiting for a whole lotta other shoes to drop.