Is there any content to a Paul Krugman column? Some people complain that the economist has become strident. I don't mind strident. Strident works. That would be fine, if there were some substance, some information, some pot of gold at the end of the shrillness rainbow. Or even if the wording was elegant. I'm sure it's just me, my offbeat sensibility, some cognitive blind spot of mine, but I don't think there's any there there (so to speak). Consider his latest column on the oil crunch:
Before the start of the Iraq war his media empire did so much to promote, Rupert Murdoch explained the payoff: "The greatest thing to come out of this for the world economy, if you could put it that way, would be $20 a barrel for oil." Crude oil prices in New York rose to almost $40 a barrel yesterday, a 13-year high.
Krugman opens with a rhetorical device not usually associated with depth and even-handedness: the straw man. Rupert Murdoch thought the Iraq War might lead to lower oil prices. Krugman is quoting Ruper Murdoch here and that's the most outrageous statement he can find?
This particular statement of Murdoch's is hardly absurd. It is just common sense that removing sanctions and updating the technology will increase Iraq's production in the long run. Does Krugman mean to argue that this reasoning is false? It is so simple and so reasonable, regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, that he does not and cannot make the argument. He makes no argument at all. Derision substitutes for an argument. I have never defended Rupert Murdoch before in my life. He's an easy target. But Krugman's punches are so wild, he can't even hit the biggest target around.
Those who expected big economic benefits from the war were, of course, utterly wrong about how things would go in Iraq. But the disastrous occupation is only part of the reason that oil is getting more expensive;...
Wait a minute. We go from a quote about oil prices falling to some nameless group of people who expected "big economic benefits." Who were these people? I never met any of them. Supporters of the war, to my memory, did not talk about big economic benefits. If anything, activists on the far left fringe claimed the invasion was "all about the oil," about economic gain for the capitalist imperialists. Supporters of the invasion argued the opposite. So Krugman here argues against a position almost no one believed or defended, but pretends this is the ground his ideological opponents occupy.
Also, the quality of the writing here declines. Note the pointless, puffed-up adjectives. The straw men who held these beliefs were not just wrong, but "utterly" wrong. The occupation is "disastrous." The Q word is in there too, a little later. Krugman's strategy, as far as I can tell: use lots of adjectives; avoid evidence or logic. I see no argument here. Only adjectives.
...the other, which will last even if we somehow find a way out of the quagmire, is the intensifying competition for a limited world oil supply.
OK, so the Iraq invasion is not really the most important factor influencing oil prices. This much was obvious. Oil production in Iraq is not yet back to pre-invasion levels, but the difference between the two hardly justifies a strong or lasting upward pressure on oil prices. But if Krugman's going to admit that, then why wax indignant for the first 2 paragraphs? In a column on the oil crunch, why employ all those puffed-up adjectives (which telegraph to the reader what he is supposed to feel about the invasion)--if the invasion has little relevance to high oil prices in the long term?
Because the column is not about the exchange of ideas, about offering information and thoughtful analysis of an important set of issues. It is about finding any excuse, and using any rehtorical device available, to attack one's perceived enemies. Logic is a casualty.
It has been interesting to watch people who lauded George Bush's leadership in the war on terror come to the belated realization that Mr. Bush has given Osama bin Laden exactly what he wanted.
Where does Krugman demonstrate that Bin Laden wants to be living in mudhole somewhere instead of running Afghanistan, that Bin Laden wanted scores of his people captured, that he wanted Libya to comply with the international community, that he wanted Iraq to fall? Is there a shred of evidence that he wanted these things? Bin Laden may be hoping that terrorist activity rises in Iraq, he may be relishing the difficulties the U.S. faces, but is this really Bin Laden's vision of the best of all possible worlds--he, who allegedly offered a truce to certain European powers, just recently? Maybe the costs of the invasion will prove to outweigh the benefits. It is an open question. But to make the strong statements Krugman is making, to act as though the issue is decided--and then to offer absolutely nothing by way of evidence--is to make oneself appear ridiculous. Sneering is not an argument.
Even if things had gone well, however, Iraq couldn't have given us cheap oil for more than a couple of years at most, because the United States and other advanced countries are now competing for oil with the surging economies of Asia.
Finally, we get to some economics. (Never let the real story get in the way of your prejudices--bury it halfway down the page). This is little disagreement among economists on this point. The developing countries are the primary source of upward pressures on oil prices. Can't argue with that. But then we get this ominous addition:
That upward turn [in oil prices] is inevitable as a growing world economy confronts a resource in limited supply. But when will it happen? Maybe it already has.
I know, of course, that such predictions have been made before, during the energy crisis of the 1970's. But the end of that crisis has been widely misunderstood: prices went down not because the world found new sources of oil, but because it found ways to make do with less
This is a bit disingenuous. The energy crisis was not the only time these "oil scarcity" predictions were made. Decade after decade--constantly, really--people have been sounding alarms about depletion of the world's oil reserves, about scarcity driving up prices. The dreaded moment has been "just around the corner" for as long as anyone remember. Oddly, the world's proven oil reserves keep expanding. Experts rarely think there's more oil to be found, but we keep finding unexpected ways to produce more, all the same. Yes, I agree, eventually oil will get so scarce and expensive that we will turn to other resources. I look forward to the next phase, the restructuring of the world economy. It should be interesting. But I don't know that it will happen soon.
"Eventually" is a funny word. You can use it and no one can say you're wrong. But the devil is in the details. Eventually the sun will burn out, too. The universe will expand until everything is cold and dead. We don't worry about the sun burning out--and we don't wring our hands and incur high costs in preparation for it--because the timing matters. I offer an understatement on this point: in the past, economists haven't been very good at all at predicting the timing of things like this (of oil scarcity, recessions... or anything else, really).
In any event, the master offers us a tautological moral to reward us for our patience:
In a way it's ironic. Lately we've been hearing a lot about competition from Chinese manufacturing and Indian call centers. But a different kind of competition — the scramble for oil and other resources — poses a much bigger threat to our prosperity.
So what should we be doing? Here's a hint: We can neither drill nor conquer our way out of the problem. Whatever we do, oil prices are going up. What we have to do is adapt.
So nice of P.K. to give us the hint. But does it mean anything, this hint? Is there anyone on the planet who thinks we shouldn't adapt? Every decision we make as consumers and producers is a manifestation of one kind of adaptation or another. Prices go up, so as consumers we adapt by consuming less oil, or by consuming less of some other commodity. This happens by definition. Saying we have to adapt is like saying we will definitely have to go the party or stay home. It's true, by golly, but pretty damned vacuous.
Also, in a very real sense, drilling is a part of the adaptation process. Producers adapt, too. For some reason this doesn't count. Why not? Krugman mentions in passing the tar sands in Canada. As production technologies make these reserves retrievable at reasonable costs, this could be a huge addition to world production. A very big factor. So maybe, just maybe, a large share of the adapting for the forseeable future will be done by producers "drilling our way out of it". Hard to say.
But I do know one thing. Next time someone asks me a difficult question--say, whether they shoud get married to their lover or not--I will rub my chin, and strike a pose of deep thought. In a grave voice, I will then offer him or her these pearls of wisdom: "You must adapt, my friend."
(I doubt I'll get invited to the wedding).