Wednesday, July 16, 2008

$500 Oil, are the Liberals happy?

Williem Buiter writing for Maverecon blog paints a gloomy picture about a world with $500 oil. He thinks when it comes to Oil prices, "sky is the limit". With ever increasing demand from places like India and China, he thinks Oil prices will continue to rise in spite of a global economic slowdown, all of which he thinks will adversely affect the poor.

I find that plausible. High oil prices may not be the driving factor behind Sri Lanka's inflation, but it does have a say in everyone's cost of living.

This reminds me of an exchange between me and Indi, where he (and a surprising number of my liberal tree-hugging friends, I might add) think that this high oil prices is actually a "good thing". Their argument is that high oil prices will lead to behavioral changes towards less energy use and incentivise alternative energy use. I certainly agree, but I don't think that's is enough to call high oil prices a "good thing". You will have to consider adverse consequences on the poor and commerce in general before coming into such conclusions. Forgetting all of that is succumbing into the church-of-gore global warming hysteria, which by the way, I don't think of as being "hippie", but simply, elitist. American-liberals shouldn't impose their values to people who cannot afford them. The same goes for democrat obsession about imposing environmental and labor standards in trade agreements for countries which can barely afford them.

For my part, I don't think of high oil as being either good or bad, high prices just are. In some ways, we should be happy about it. This means that millions of Indians, Chinese (and even some Sri Lankans) are climbing out of poverty and able to afford automobiles and in general, more quality of life. For some reason, this part of the story is often neglected.

However, I'm not as optimistic about the benefits of high oil rise, particularly for developing countries. There are several reasons for this,

First, thanks to high taxes and inefficient refinery, we already have higher gasoline prices at the pump, compared to the U.S. even without considering the heavy subsidies given to cover the daily losses of the state-run Ceylon Petroleum Corporation.

Secondly, any breakthrough from alternative-energy research is unlikely to be spawned by places like Sri Lanka, although my Indian friends might beg to differ. So while global price rise may indeed help incentivise alternative energy research and adaptation, it doesn't justify high taxes in places like Sri Lanka.

Thirdly, behavioral changes in the magnitude that we are seeing in the U.S. and other developed countries are unlikely to be seen in places like Sri Lanka. This is because, high consumption of gasoline in the U.S. is partly due to exuberance -- air travel, SUVs, long trips, so on. and when gas prices rise, Americans change their behavior. So SUV sales are down and Americans are driving less. But consumption of gasoline in places like Sri Lanka has more to do with necessity. Most Sri Lankans use public transport, which doesn't have good alternatives. As for people who are used to driving cars, public transport won't be appealing, given it's poor quality. So even if behavioral changes come (and it will) they will be smaller compared to the U.S. and at a greater cost in terms of living standards of average Sri Lankans.

So no, I don't think high oil prices are a good thing.

But I do have faith in human ingenuity, that when price of oil becomes unsustainable we will find alternatives. I don't know what that alternative is, I don't know whether it's solar, wind or nuclear. I don't know whether we will drive electric cars, or cars which runs on water or hydrogen. But what I do know is we will keep on driving.

For much of human existence, petroleum was a useless, gooey, waste product, until we figured out we can use it for energy. Similarly, we will find something else which can serve the same purpose. Humankind got out of the stone age, not because we ran out of stone, but because we found out new and better things. Similarly, we will come out of the oil-age, with something new and better. But in the meantime, let's be rational about the benefits of high priced oil.

See more stuff about Oil on deaned.


Asma said...

you blogged about it! god..

This is what I get for violating Asma's first law : Don't argue with Deane. :P

Deane said...

get over it hun. you were reduced to a bracket ;)