Oil and Vinegar

America's salad days give way to crises.


Six months into the war, Americans are confronting shortages and experts are warning of more to come. Last month, the price of a staple that pervades the American economy, playing a role in every major event from breakfast through dinner, tripled. As is often the tragic case, children–America's future–were among the hardest hit.

"I've always paid a dollar [for my ham sandwich] and it comes with lettuce and tomato," Luis Ortiz, a junior at Hollywood High School, told the Los Angeles Times, which sent reporters to schools in late March to document the human impact of the country's lettuce shortage. "And in the past few days they've started changing things….I think they are taking advantage of us."

Thankfully, that crisis was short, passing as the growing season moved north from the Arizona desert to California's central valley. Heads of Iceberg and Romaine are again appearing on the shelves of supermarkets, and those $1 surcharges on restaurant salads will soon be a thing of the past. Yet even as the lettuce crisis subsides, the price of another staple appears to be inexorably rising. The price of gas is increasing again, jumping $.07 in the last three weeks.

Oil crises, like winter in Buffalo, arrive with some regularity, sometimes crushing consumers with price increases and sometimes pummeling producers with the opposite. Like a good Looney Tunes production, they offer something for everyone. Local news teams can fill up the van and pick up a story at the same time. The Department of Energy can connect with the public through its gasoline price hotline. Legislators at all levels can demand investigations. Paul Krugman can bash SUVs in his New York Times column. And sometimes, as a bonus, the scare comes with an evil foreign dictator threatening the U.S. way of life.

That, of course, is the case this time, with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein announcing that he will show solidarity with the Palestinians and punish the U.S. by withholding 1.5 million barrels of oil a day for 30 days. (After that, his store of dehydrated humus runs out, so he'll resume his exchange of oil for calories.) As with the lettuce scoop, intrepid reporters are chronicling the suffering.

"I can hardly pay for the price of gas as it is," Crystal Siembida of Columbiano, Ohio, told USA Today. If it gets any higher, she's threatening to get on a bike or carpool.

Others have already been driven to pool resources and crack down on free riders. "We figure out the portions we all owe for gas before we get out of the car," L.A.'s Jeep Cherokee-driving Bonnie Sporn says of the Sunday drives she takes with friends.

Siembida and Sporn can take some comfort from the facts that gas prices are lower today than a year ago and that we are unlikely to suffer from an oil embargo. Saddam does not control the world oil market. He contributes a mere 4 percent of daily output, and because the oil market is global, selling to anyone is the same as selling to Israel and its allies.

Sure, the Middle East, the source of nearly one third of the world's oil, is a distressingly dysfunctional place, where your best friends can also turn out to be the sources of your largest problems. But as Adam Smith famously noted, it's not from the benevolence of the oil sheik that the world gets its petroleum, but from his self-interest. The portion of the world that enjoys such things as easy transportation, air conditioning, and Hollywood movies may be addicted to oil. But the oil exporting countries of the Middle East are even more dependent on oil revenues–their main source of income to buy such things as food, clothing, housing, and domestic tranquility.

For Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, or Kuwait to give up pumping oil would be the equivalent of Microsoft boycotting the software business. So we can relax, even as we enjoy the latest round of oil-based news stories. It's not like people are willing to blow themselves up simply to spite their enemies. That just doesn't make sense.