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The Speculation Explanation: Framing the Energy Crisis

The speculation explanation blurs the issues involved in our present energy crisis.
 
 
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"There is nothing in that equation that says oil should cost what it costs today. Nothing! With one exception -- speculation." -- Mike Norman, Fox News Central

"A major contributor (to high oil prices) is the rise in speculation." -- Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., to CNNMoney

"Perhaps 60 percent of today's oil price is pure speculation." -- F. William Engdahl, Global Research

The $11 spike in the price of crude oil on Friday, June 6, pasted a great big exclamation point on the sentence, "Something is wrong with oil prices" banging around in the worried minds of America's happy motoring hoi polloi. With the national average for a gallon of liquid mobility hovering around four bucks, fear, now the only motive for action among the populace of fortress America, inevitably initiated some reflection among them. Such instinctive fear-inspired attention developing around the plug-in of the matrix must be deflected, and so it was: Enter the speculation explanation.

The speculation explanation blurs the issues involved in our present energy crisis by suggesting the wrong semantic frame to truthfully explain high oil prices and the likely consequences of depletion. Oil futures speculation is only tangentially relevant to an honest discussion of the price of oil. In fact, it is harmful because it undermines and replaces a reality-based appraisal of the problem. This meme arose simultaneously from a variety of sources by institutional necessity from within the propaganda apparatus to serve the interests of the military-industrial-congressional-cultural complex. Those interests are "business as usual" at all costs. The story will sound familiar.

The speculation explanation filtered through the media system like a virus; the cable TV culture conduit showed footage of it being uttered by corporate shills, politicians, kings and think tank pundiots until it became common knowledge. It was repeated like the pledge of allegiance, everyone marching in lockstep, in exactly the fashion predicted in the propaganda model of media. It was the version of events created for public consumption.

Pairing the words oil and speculation ubiquitously and uncritically, the usual cable news talking heads faithfully disseminated the meme to the masses. The cacophony reached new heights in congressional hearings last week. Politicians from the auto state opined repeatedly about speculation for an obvious reason -- the inverse relation between high gas prices and Michigan's economic survival. The notion of speculation as the principle cause of recent price spikes also found a defender from among those who also believe that oil comes from a magic oil fairy that lives at the center of the Earth and abiotically refills oil reservoirs as they deplete (making the 60 percent speculation quotient easier to estimate presumably?). So what is the average American to make of this?

Economists employ the term speculation to refer to a specific kind of market activity. Markets generate wealth in four ways: profit from direct financing of business activity or investment; profit through risk minimization or hedging; profit from price differences between two distinct markets, or arbitrage; and profit through price differences in a single market, known as agiotage, or speculation. The speculator tries to buy low and sell high, thereby profiting from the market uncertainty about the future supply. Speculation and market manipulation are two different things. The speculator is simply betting the price will go up.

Oil is a fungible commodity in a global market. Used to be that speculation was never a problem for the oil market, since world supply steadily grew year on year, and if the price ever got too high "somebody" would just turn on the pump and flood the market with cheap crude. Call it supply-side price controls. In the early days of the 20th century, that somebody was Uncle Sam and his nephew Standard Oil.

Since the '70s, the world's swing producer has been the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This macro-manipulation of the price of oil, neo-liberal reservations aside, never garnered a congressional or popular objection, as long as it was the United States or our ally in the desert doing the manipulation in order to keep things humming right along for the disaster capitalists.

While the Saudis announced plans last week to increase their production by a quarter of a million barrels, they -- or even a unified OPEC -- cannot lower price by increasing supply. The proposed increase represents a mere quarter of a percent of daily world production, and it has no chance of making even a minor dent in price. Considerable doubt remains about whether such an increase can be sustained for long. The Saudis cannot increase supply to match demand in any event, so that's it for supply-side price controls. It should come as no surprise that even Abdullah joined the speculation sing-along lest he witness his vast dollar-denominated assets devalue further.

According to many prominent geologists, the planet reached or will reach very soon its all-time petroleum production peak. No amount of investment or innovation can alter that fundamental geologic fact. Because of this, according to legendary oilman T. Boone Pickens, only demand destruction can lower prices now.

The argument for speculation as the cause of the price run-up is both right and wrong. It is true that investors, the big banks and funds especially, are trying to make some money by buying up commodities, especially oil, after losing their shirts buying bad mortgage paper. Their activities can be accurately characterized as speculation in the economist's sense of the term. These commodities futures purchases also function as a hedge against the weakness of the dollar.

Criminal only in the sense that all capitalism is criminal, such speculation remains an integral part of a free market system. Consumers remain stuck between the Scylla of speculation-induced price shocks and the Charybdis of shrinking retirement portfolios directed by money managers frantically trying to offset massive write-downs with profits from commodities speculation. Bad news any way you slice it.

In an economy where Bubbles Greenspan blew hot air into tech stocks and the housing market in rapid succession, it is easy to view any steep rise in prices as the result of a speculative bubble. The real long-term value in the underlying market remains the question. There is no oil bubble, only a widening gulf between the amount of oil available and the amount of oil we want to use. Since world supply has remained flat since 2005, prices have risen and consumers in poorer nations simply quit buying, creating the facade of equilibrium and postponing inevitable shortages in the industrialized nations. According to energy analysts Matt Simmons and Dr. Robert Hirsch, oil at $140 remains significantly underpriced.

We in the United States have come to expect low energy prices as a birthright; however, because our economy and infrastructure cannot function without massive amounts of hydrocarbon energy, we will pay whatever it costs for as long as possible to keep the lights on and the trucks moving. Given rapidly growing demand from Chindia, the only direction for the price in the near term is up. As the true picture of future supply becomes apparent to all, oil at $140 will look like a real bargain.

Speculators are not artificially reducing supply through hoarding, which is the kind of fraud that our now-gutted market regulations were meant to curb. Closing the Enron loophole and exposing the NYMEX cabal that manipulates world oil flows to further American and British interests is not going get more oil out of the ground, but it will function as a convenient distraction from the larger depletion issue. At the end of the month, those institutions trading in the oil futures markets must really take their oil or sell it to somebody who will. Inventories are not increasing, and every bit of supply is going into the system. The market is functioning according to its own estimate of the future.

This is not to say that day-to-day oil price is exclusively a function of geology. There is a shortage of drilling rigs worldwide. Aging refineries strain to process the massive flow of capitalism's lifeblood, producing the most oil we will ever produce -- remember, we are at peak. Conflict rules in the oil zones. Offshore is not Ghawar!, i.e., energy returned on energy invested is decreasing as extraction peaks. Climate-crisis wacky weather doesn't help. The dubious sanity of the Oilman with his finger on the biggest red button causing an "insecurity premium" must figure to be at least $9.11 of the price. None of this would be a problem if King Abdullah could still flip the oil switch. Instead of buying back their own stock, the oil majors would be building rigs, tankers and refineries to accommodate future supply increases. We wouldn't need the oil from the conflict zones. We wouldn't have 140,000 American troops building permanent bases on top of the last big puddle of it. The day-to-day price is driven by the fluid economic and political dynamics of resource competition.

*****

If it is true that oil supply is not being artificially but geologically and politically constricted as I have suggested, then the whole discussion of oil speculation as the cause of high prices must have a different purpose. It does! A quick dose of cognitive science reveals it.

The last 30 years of research in cognitive science and linguistics have decisively changed our understanding of human thinking. One major innovation has been the discovery of "frame semantics." Frames are the mental structures that we employ to comprehend reality, and they unconsciously shape our reasoning and action. Frames are not merely abstract associations; rather they are embodied relations in the neural networks of our brains acquired through learning. Frames provide the starting point for the inferences we make about the world. Frames are the basis for thinking itself.

Hotel! Simply reading the word evokes a frame. One thinks immediately of a building with many rooms, clerks, maids and guests. The word implies a whole set of institutionally sanctioned behavioral possibilities and prohibitions for the players of the various roles. It conjures a constellation of locations (guest rooms, lobby, lounge), actions (checking in, checking out, cleaning rooms) and objects (luggage, plastic card keys, and housekeeping carts). It allows us to infer that if someone is a guest, then they probably have luggage, and so on.

Framing expert and Berkley Cognitive Science professor George Lakoff asserts as his first point in an article titled "Simple Framing," "Every word evokes a frame." Words set the stage for thinking. What sort of frame does the term speculation evoke, especially when paired with the term oil?

First, because of oil futures, speculation is specifically an economic phenomenon; it keeps discussion of oil focused on the economic aspects of the problem. Second, in a more colloquial usage, speculation implies generalized uncertainty about something because to speculate is to reason based on inconclusive evidence. Finally, the speculation frame, understood as criminal market manipulation, provides an action structure to which an explanatory narrative can then be attached. We implicitly understand how frames function in the propaganda system if we understand the difference between collateral damage and dead civilians. They deflect and redirect.

Evoking the speculation frame serves to keep the entire discussion of our energy crisis within the province of economics. The implication is that markets, investment and economic growth are primary considerations in understanding it. This frame interprets high oil prices as an economic problem and thus infers that the problem has an economic solution. The appropriate tools to handle the problem are market oversight, tax incentives for business, and removal of restrictions to free enterprise, i.e., permit offshore and ANWAR drilling immediately. The solution is to do more of what we are doing now. The market will adapt and all will be well.

While the energy crisis will have severe economic impacts, it is not fundamentally about economics. It is about human ecology and the limits of growth. Our cultural institutions like driving and consumption conflict directly with the material conditions that make them possible. When the discussion of energy remains in the province of economics, the key assumptions of the economist that the planet is an infinite resource, that the free market will solve all problems, and that growth is a universal good are effectively concealed beyond the focus of critical evaluation. The speculation frame hides the truth by suggesting the wrong context to understand our energy predicament. It just keeps us speculating about what percentage of the price is speculation.

If there is anything the public relations executives running the propaganda system have learned, it is that perceived uncertainty about factual issues generates apathy among the proles. It's no wonder that the Fox News presentation of the "speculation" story is to simply repeat the word speculation as many times as possible. The last 20 years of public discourse on global warming perfectly illustrates the technique: Just keep saying "there is still a debate," and the masses tune out and flip back to HGTV.

Pairing the word oil with the word speculation and repeating it over and over creates the impression that there is some uncertainty about the future of oil rather than merely about the price of oil futures contracts. This short-circuit thought about the issue and reasoned prognostication, like that made by the Association for the Study of Peak Oil, becomes mere speculation. Just think of the vernacular uses of the term speculation, as in "that's just speculation" or "he's only speculating." The speculator is somebody who believes his own ill-founded conjectures.

We are led to reason that there is not enough information about the energy problem to take drastic measures. It's as if the system is screaming, "Don't revolt, don't revolt." While the facts of oil depletion and peak production are undeniable and the inferences about the likely effects of depletion on global politics and economics are very strong arguments, the speculation frame undercuts actions based on these facts. This framing just reinforces the petroleum preservation paralysis that is the precondition of the status quo energy use paradigm.

This oil uncertainty is paradoxically palliating to boomers who lived through the '70s and thus learned to understand energy issues in exclusively economic and political terms. Their apathy stems from the mistaken inference that this energy crisis will be like the last one: painful for a while but only a blip in the permanent bliss of our American petroleum paradise. News flash: There will be no Prudhoe Bay this time around, boys and girls.

The uncertainty associated with oil in the average American mind leaves room for the hope and belief that we'll get back to normal soon enough. Maybe, just maybe, gas prices will drop. Americans will soon realize that a drop in oil prices will only come after the global economy, one that now uses every available drop of crude, crashes and burns in an entropic catastrophe. It will take more than airline inconvenience or high gas prices to get Americans to unplug themselves from the hologram, but remember, petroleum powers the propaganda system, too. It's the lubricant that makes social order possible. I'm betting they will come unplugged in droves when the "Out of Gas" signs start showing up at 7-Eleven, that is, the ones that don't just go postal on the spot. The near future won't be normal!

Joe Average experiences high oil prices as a constriction of discretionary income, or worse, a shortfall for basic needs. This fact requires an explanatory narrative. Such a downgrade in one's standard of living requires someone to blame. Price shocks ascribed to speculation provide this framework.

Speculation that artificially restricts supply through hoarding in order to gouge consumers is a crime. While this is not actually occurring, it makes compelling news copy. There are victims, perpetrators, law enforcement, and a predicable sequence of actions and outcomes. The poor schmuck driving an hour each way to work from his McMansion and the homemaker who can't afford eggs and milk any longer easily recognize themselves as the victims in this cruel petroleum farce. The big boys on the trading floor running up the price of crude, consumed with greed and lust for profit, play the role of dastardly yet faceless criminals. The affable sheriff Levin and his slapstick deputy Stupid, uh, I mean Stupak, investigate the complaints and haul the speculators in for questioning. After some reprimand for the bad apples, all will be back too normal in Consumption County.

While it remains a comforting thought to some that Congress is exercising some sort of oversight, the whole episode of investigative hearings is about creating a scapegoat and thus political cover for the next election. It also provides voters with the illusion of potency and action from their elected representatives. When you can buy whole city blocks of houses for $5,000 apiece in Detroit, "somebody's gotta do sumthin."

Michigan's senatorial contingent likely believes their own speculation about why oil prices have spiked; however, the political calculus remains the proximate cause of their hearings. The speculation explanation pacifies both the drivers and former factory workers composing the Michigan electorate by postponing the grim news that the American auto industry and our personal transportation system are on their way to the morgue. Kudos to Carl for such an exhibition of political jujitsu!

The speculation explanation simply delays the arrival of the moment when we will begin, as a nation, to address the reality of our energy crisis. No market solutions will address the geologic and cultural roots of the problem. Enforcing apathy through uncertainty will only buy time for the status quo to profit from the collapse and temporarily deflect the political wrath of the proletariat. The hope for a return to normalcy afforded by the contention that today's price shocks resulted from criminal behavior also postpones the tipping point of the national consciousness necessary to demand reality-based energy policy. It won't be long until disruptions and disasters that are the face of the energy crisis make it impossible to keep the accoutrements of the American Way of Life up and running.

One other aspect of the speculation frame bears mentioning. The speculator engages in risky business ventures in the hope of considerable payoff. The speculator is a gambler. However, buying into the speculation frame places another risky bet. The American people, by not demanding effective leadership that places energy and environment as the number one priority, have rolled the dice, and the odds are against them. The stakes are nothing less than our children's future. Let's hope we don't lose everything.

 
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