Category Archives: Economics


Bob Zubrin is still selling flex-fueled cars (at least conceptually), which might be a good idea, but I wish that he weren’t doing so with over-the-top rhetoric and economic ignorance. Here’s the very first graf:

Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez recently joined Iranian president Mahmoud Amadinejad in threatening to raise oil prices to $200 per barrel. The threat should be taken quite seriously. With no practical transportation fuel alternative to petroleum available to the world market, the OPEC oil cartel has already been successful in raising prices an order of magnitude since 1999, with a 50 percent increase effected in 2007 alone.

I disagree that this threat should be taken seriously. The notion that oil can ever get to a sustainable $200/barrel, in inflation and currency-adjusted terms, is ludicrous, regardless of the clearly malign intent of Hugo and Mahmoud. They are not capable of achieving this. No one is.

First of all, they don’t control the world’s oil markets. The Saudis (and increasingly, the Iraqis) will have a major say as well. But even if you could get an agreement within OPEC to do so (a ludicrous notion in itself, because the individual members tend to look after their own interests), it still would never happen. First, many states would cheat. But more importantly, the current price is unsustainable at near-term (over the next decade or two) projected demand levels because there are many new sources that are available at production costs much lower than current prices (e.g., tar sands and shale in the western US and Canada). The only reason that they haven’t brought down the price yet is that they’re only starting to come on line.

And if the price did somehow get to that value (as the Saudis understand, even if economically ignorant boobs like Ahmadinejad and Chavez don’t) it would cause a recession that would depress world wide demand. Also, unless you can drive the price of oil to zero, it’s not going to starve the oil dictators of their oil revenues. The only way to do that is to take away their oil (as we did with Saddam). I’m not necessarily proposing that we do so–just pointing out the only realistic way to accomplish it.

On top of this, much of the price rise that Bob Zubrin decries is due to the weak dollar, and has nothing to do with either supply or demand of oil.

Maybe such overblown rhetoric and economic nonsense will sell the concept for him; it’s certainly worked to good effect for the global warm-mongers–but I’d be more persuaded if he’d be more realistic. There are a lot of good arguments for ending the burning of oil for transportation as soon as we can, and I wish that he’d stick to them, instead of doing an impression of Gary North.

False Security from PPP Recalculation

Rand’s analysis of the restatement of the purchasing power parity (PPP) calculation for China is incomplete. As I’ve pointed out before, the revised 2006 PPP calculation with the economy measured at PPP nearly three times instead of four times as large as at official exchange rates still leaves China with a $2.5 trillion dollar economy (2006) at official exchange rates and $6 trillion if you consider most of what we and the Chinese buy is cheaper in dollars to buy in China than it is in the US. The relevant numbers for long term strategic security are the industrial production growth rate (from the CIA World Factbook on Intelligence) at 22%/year, the labor force of 800 million of which 45% do agriculture (2005) versus less than 1% for the US and the 11%/year real growth rate.

This indicates that China has a lot of head room as its agricultural sector mechanizes and rationalizes farm size. It has a lot of head room because per capita GDP is either $1,900/year at official exchange rates or $4,500/year at PPP. At 8% faster GDP growth than the US, it will catch us in 10 years in PPP or by 2030 at the official exchange rate. At that point it will still have substantial headroom to grow for another decade much faster than the US because per capita GDP at that point will only be 1/4 the US per capita GDP.

Like finding out that Iran doesn’t want a bomb, this new statistic is a red herring. China is still on the rise. It’s vainglory to hope they just topple themselves like Russia. Just because Iran doesn’t want a bomb (if it doesn’t) it still has a nuclear program and could have one if it wanted in a quite short period of time. Just because we recalculated the statistics to show that China has a smaller economy, it is still growing fast and with the revised calculations rates likely to grow even faster.

I am sure that single-party government will be a drag on China, but they can still field a super power’s worth of hardware once they exceed our GDP. It may take them a while once they are spending as much as the US is on defense to catch up to our technology level, but a tech advantage is not always decisive. Especially if they start outspending us 2 to 1 a decade later while their per-capita GDP is still half of ours.

Peak Oil?

I don’t really believe in “peak oil,” though I’ll buy the concept of peak cheap oil. But Randall Parker does, and thinks we’re there, and is worried about the transition. Lot of good discussion in comments.

In my opinion, it will only be a problem if the government mucks with the market too much. Unfortunately, at least based on their behavior in the seventies, that’s not an unlikely possibility.

How Does That Work?

Tom Friedman thinks that if Obama gets the nomination, he should keep Dick Cheney as the VP. Well, not really, but I do agree with him that the administration’s policy toward Iran does seem confused and confusing. It’s kind of like “indecisive cop/bad cop.”

But what I really wanted to comment on was this strange sentence:

Mr. Obama would also be more effective if he not only stressed how much further he was ready to go than the Bush team to engage Iran, but also how much further he would be ready to go in bringing meaningful leverage on Iran

A True Shortage

I’ve always found it a little surprising how unthinkingly we use helium, when it really is in short supply on the planet. Party balloons are fun, but at some point I do expect the price to rise to the point at which it will only have industrial uses (including for space activities). It could certainly liven up parties if we switch over to hydrogen balloons…

There’s plenty of helium to be mined out in the solar system, but it would be an interesting challenge to import it back down into the gravity well. I suppose it would just be done in pressurized tanks.