Sunday, April 30, 2006

Tom Friedman looks at the big picture

Tom Friedman, whom I don't read much since the New York Times pay-to-read decision that put the paper's intellectual market share out of its misery by shooting it in the head, has suddenly reappeared in my mailbox via someone's foolish notion that I would find his most recent struggle with an idea worthy of study.

And indeed Tom Friedman's struggles with ideas are always instructive, in the sense that the sight of wreckage on a bad curve on the highway is instructive. In this case, Tom has stepped out of his office suite and wandered into the heartland, and found that the price of gasoline is high. One imagines this discovery accompanied by a dramatic clapping of his own hand to his own forehead, along with a firm resolution to alert the world and rush into print.

So, his early warning sensors having alerted him to this crisis--my guess is that he overheard his driver grumble about gas prices--he sets to work finding its cause, which he immediately discovers is: dependence on foreign crude oil, announced like you heard it here first. Excited by the insight, he declares it to be the "most important geostrategic and geoeconomic challenge of our time," for four reasons. Friedman has a thing about numbering stuff, as well as about polysyllabic challenges.

First, we are financing both sides in the war on terror, i.e., paying for the war in Iraq and paying Saudi fundamentalists for oil. OK.

Second, continued dependence on fossil fuels will hasten global warming, given that all the other inhabitants of global flat-earth want cars too. He immediately intuits a silver lining to this cloud, in that energy efficiency is a potential new global industry that we can dominate, if we impose tougher standards on our own businesses, so they will get in on the ground floor. Like, fat chance. But he does not linger here.

Third, because of the "steady climb in oil prices" (brought to us, by the way, by the free market) the previously unstoppable-seeming wave of free markets is going to be "stymied" by "petro-authoritarian states." It has never occurred to Tom that if such states--Russia and Nigeria and Saudi Arabia and Venezuela--are doing so very nicely through the operation of the free market, there might be something wrong with the free market. That can never occur to Tom Friedman, because his head would explode.

The solution to the steady climb in oil prices is to "bring down the price of crude." How one does that, with a globalized free market, and global demand increasing much faster than global supply, would seem to be the question of the day, eh, Tom?

Plus, number four, we will never plant the seeds of democracy in the middle east if we don't bring down the price of oil.

At this point Tom Friedman plays President (or God, as he used to be called) and says we need to _raise_ gasoline taxes, which shows, sweet Jesus--I am driven here to use an aphorism so hackneyed that Tom Friedman must have already used it somewhere himself--that a stopped clock can be right twice a day, though in Tom Friedman's case he is only doing half as well as the clock. Increased gasoline taxes are a good idea, and like most good ideas in America, politically impossible.

Then he goes from the ridiculous to the sublimely ridiculous by finding the legislative solution to the problem in the "bipartisan" Fuel Choices for American Security Act, which supposedly will require cars to run on fuels other than gasoline. The bill would give Detroit big subsides for this.

Then, having exhausted his fund of solutions (never fear, he will be back), he warns us that if both parties shirk the energy challenge as he sees it, there will be a third party rising to prominence in the 2008 election, the "Geo-Green Party."

If some blogger said this, he would be thought mad. Tom Friedman's reputation for good-natured sincerity, if not the soulful earnestness of a labrador retriever bringing you a piece of waterlogged wood, protects him from this. Another reason why I can never write for the New York Times.

Nowhere, in the entire column, is there any mention the fact that world oil production has been stalled for a year at about 84 million barrels a day even as very reasonable projections for world economic growth require production of 120 million barrels per day within a few short years, a level of production which cannot be reached unless Jesus returns to earth and turns water into oil--maybe the Black Sea. There is some hint that Tom Friedman recognizes the inexorable rise in world demand, but he is clueless about peak oil.

It doesn't seem to enter his head that coming radical disparity between supply and demand is something our present political institutions will have a lot of trouble dealing with--like I said, what politician is gonna seriously propose raising gasoline taxes? Nor does it enter his head that shifting a small percentage of our oil imports over to farm subsidies for corn ethanol does not really address the problem.

Radical lifestyle restructuring is not his cup of tea, nor is forecasting wreckage on a bad economic curve in the absence of such restructuring.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia quietly announced the other day that the Kingdom's mature oil fields (which include Ghawar, the world's largest) are declining at a rate of 8% per year, but that with new production from expected new discoveries, they hope to reduce the projected decline in Saudi production to 2% per year.

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