The latest economic news is striking. The U.S. economy has come to a “virtual standstill.” The bubble has burst and, with anxious global markets registering the shock, other bubble economies worldwide continue to shudder at the possibility that American consumers might be forced to rein in their decade-long buying spree of imported goods.
Though any reader of newspaper business pages has surely noticed that oil news, oil deals, and oil prices have been front and center, the role of oil in our new economic moment has been underemphasized of late. It’s hard even to remember — now that the price of a barrel of crude oil has hit the $100 mark and still hovers around $91 — that, in the week after September 11, 2001, oil was still under $20 a barrel. Think of this as another modest accomplishment of the Bush administration, helped along by its rash war in Iraq, which actually took oil off the market. In a mere six years, we’ve gone from the era of cheap oil to the era of pricy petroleum or “tough oil”, with a new spike at the gas pump expected as early as this spring. The results are now there for all to see — in growing misery at home as well as stunning global financial and power shifts.
Michael Klare has long been ahead of the curve. In the late 1990s, he was already writing about “resource wars” in the coming century; as that century dawned, his next book, Blood and Oil, arrived; and now, just in time for a new global era, his latest book, Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet: The New Geopolitics of Energy, is ready to appear. You could say that he saw much of this coming and here he offers us an assessment of the missing role that energy played in the bursting of the American bubble. Tom
Something Had to Give
By Michael T. Klare
The economic bubble that lifted the stock market to dizzying heights was sustained as much by cheap oil as by cheap (often fraudulent) mortgages. Likewise, the collapse of the bubble was caused as much by costly (often imported) oil as by record defaults on those improvident mortgages. Oil, in fact, has played a critical, if little commented upon, role in America’s current economic enfeeblement — and it will continue to drain the economy of wealth and vigor for years to come.
The great economic mega-bubble arose in the late 1990s, when oil was cheap, times were good, and millions of middle-class families aspired to realize the “American dream” by buying a three (or more) bedroom house on a decent piece of property in a nice, safe suburb with good schools and various other amenities. The hitch: Few such affordable homes were available for sale — or being built — within easy commuting range of major metropolitan areas or near public transportation. In the Los Angeles metropolitan area, for example, the median sale price of existing homes rose from $290,000 in 2002 to $446,400 in 2004; similar increases were posted in other major cities and in their older, more desirable suburbs.
This left home buyers with two unappealing choices: Take out larger mortgages than they could readily afford, often borrowing from unscrupulous lenders who overlooked their overstretched finances (that is, their “subprime” qualifications); or buy cheaper homes far from their places of work, which ensured long commutes, while hoping that the price of gasoline remained relatively low. Many first-time home buyers wound up doing both — signing up for crushing mortgages on homes far from their places of work.