THE OTHER DAY I was discussing rising oil prices with some friends, who were suggesting to me that the it's the market that is to blame for rapidly rising commodity prices. I was explaining about the power of price signals and how these get muddled when governments intervene and they interrupted me to tell me that when oil is over one-hundred dollars a barrel, it's too late to talk -- it's obvious we're already running out.
I pointed out that oil is not at one-hundred dollars a barrel because we're running out of oil -- oil is at one-hundred dollars a barrel because in many parts of the world in which oil is (or could be) produced, producing oil is now essentially illegal.
In the continental USA for instance, restrictions on drilling around the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska, Wyoming, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico and other states stymie efforts to tap into what amount to huge resources. (Opening up these areas would provide enough oil to power 60 million cars for 60 years, plus enough natural gas to heat 60 million homes for 160 years, but 85 percent of coastal waters have been declared off limits, along with similar restrictions on 75 percent of the onshore prospects. [Quoted from: Sound of Cannons. Emphasis mine.])
Meanwhile, environmental restrictions on building new refineries and expanding the productive capacity of existing refineries has made it all but impossible to expand production of the reserves that do exist.
==>ERGO 1: It's not that "we" are running out of oil, but that producing oil is rapidly becoming illegal.
==>ERGO 2: It's not a failure of markets, it's an obvious success of government: success in stifling production of the very stuff of industrial life, and in burying the ability of producers to respond to price signals in the way they need to.
THE SAME SORT OF story can be found with other commodities. The problem with price rises in most commodities is not that 'we're running out of room to grow stuff' or that 'we've got too much free trade.' What we have is another government success story. As the story of rice shows, there is an almost compete lack of free trade in the staff of life for about half of the world's population - trade itself is slowly becoming illegal.
While the global price of rice has almost doubled, for example, adjustment to these prices has been all but impossible. Says Tyler Cowen in the New York Times in a piece called Freer Trade Could Fill the World's Rice Bowl (hat tip Paul Walker):
Cowen goes on to say:
Although rice is the major foodstuff for about half of the world, it is highly protected and regulated. Only about 5 to 7 percent of the world’s rice production is traded across borders; that’s unusually low for an agricultural commodity.
So when the price goes up — indeed, many varieties of rice have roughly doubled in price since 2007 — this highly segmented market means that the trade in rice doesn’t flow to the places of highest demand.
The more telling figure is that over the next year, international trade in rice is expected to decline more than 3 percent, when it should be expanding. The decline is attributable mainly to recent restrictions on rice exports in rice-producing countries like India, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Egypt.
As Walker concludes, "when trade is restricted and food exports are made illegal"there is little incentive to plant, harvest or store rice. High prices should give producers the incentive to expand production, which is just what is needed for rice. But if producers can not access those high prices on the world market because of export restrictions, then they don't have the incentive needed." It's surely impossible to disagree with his conclusion:
There are few areas in which free trade could do more good, than in the production of food.
UPDATE: Matt B in my comments section brilliantly explains how understanding price signals leads to the proper response to rising prices:
How different peoples' reactions would be if, instead of reading "high prices," they read "scarcity".
It would transform the debate. The immediate question that follows would not be demands for price controls or export restraints ,etc., but instead, "how do we raise supply?"