Fewer than three years ago, in the spring of 2011, news stories reported that “as gasoline prices rise nationwide” President Obama had announced formation of a Justice Department task force “to investigate and prosecute suspected fraud in the energy markets,” including “the role of traders and speculators.”
The president declared that “there is no silver bullet that can bring down gas prices right away. But there are a few things we can do.”
Well. Gas prices have been sinking delightfully below $2 a gallon in recent weeks, to about half of what they were just a couple of years ago. Their stunning decline is inspiring everything from hopes for a more robust economic recovery, to worries among environmentalists that the push for cleaner energy sources will be stunted, to both hopes and worries about what plunging fuel prices will mean in international affairs from Russia to the Middle East to China.
All important questions. But before we get too busy expertly analyzing how the gas price collapse will affect “what happens next,” maybe we should focus on a more basic reminder to be found in this remarkable development.
I mean the reminder that we usually know drastically less about what’s really going on — and therefore about “what happens next” (for good or ill) — than the public and the great seers who lead us like to suppose.
Obama’s crackdown on alleged market manipulations was one of many such probes politicians have announced and proposed over a good many years. Blaming high energy costs on sinister, artificial forces — rather than on such pedestrian matters as supply and demand — has been a staple political response, even a bipartisan one. Even George W. Bush once made big news as president by warning that America was dangerously “addicted” to foreign oil, which threatened ever-higher costs.
Above all, while there were dissenting voices, a powerful consensus had formed until recently that cheap oil was gone for good and energy independence for America was unlikely anytime soon, if ever.
Well. Of course, the global energy market is gigantic and complex and vulnerable to manipulation — certainly by oil-producing nations. But it turns out that sufficiently large shifts in simple supply and demand can swamp all of that and send world markets reeling.
What’s more important still, it turns out that there actually was a kind of “silver bullet” nearly at hand by 2011 with enough firepower to revolutionize the oil market the old-fashioned way.
Yet until quite recently hardly anyone, not even the president of the United States, saw the revolution coming or fully understood the impact it would have.
The magic came from rapid technological advances driving surging supplies of oil and natural gas, especially in the United States. Another somewhat unexpected and pleasing feature of the new energy era that’s burst upon us is that these new technologies, such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, have, despite their sophistication, a broad-shouldered, industrial sound and quality about them. Ours may be the age of cloud computing, but its most consequential innovation could turn out to have been rather more down-to-earth.
So we shouldn’t be too sure that we have any reliable idea where the next transformative technology may come from.
The real point worth noticing is broader, though. The energy upheaval is only the latest evidence of our limited understanding of the forces shaping the future at any given time. The housing crisis of 2007-08 and its aftermath vividly offered the same lesson, but in a disastrous form. Then, too, the general surprise with which a huge event descended was itself one of the most surprising things about it.
And then, too, little time was wasted before we all moved on to confident predictions about what would come next.
What is true in economic affairs is naturally true elsewhere. In social trends, say, or international relations, or politics, we simply don’t see what’s coming — and neither do those who claim to.
Maybe this is too grandiose a truth to draw from a drop in gasoline prices — or perhaps it’s just an overly obvious fact of life. But here’s a confident prediction about the future: We will soon have many opportunities to forget it.
With a new year underway, a new Congress and Legislature sworn in, and a new presidential political season beginning, the air will soon ring with bold predictions, gleaming visions, dire warnings and lavish promises — signs of self-assured understanding that our political culture today energetically rewards.
But keeping in mind how little we seem to know even about something like the future of gas prices, a wise people might also welcome the politics of prudence, caution, humility and compromise — signs of knowing the vital truth that there is much one doesn’t know.
For that matter, who knows how long those cheap gas prices will last? Enjoy them while you can.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.