If you are an Al Gore supporter, pray for a mild winter. This is the message Chatterbox gleans from a “to be sure” paragraph in a Page One article by Steve Liesman and Jacob Schlesinger in the Dec. 15 Wall Street Journal. The article explains why the doubling of oil prices this year has failed to disrupt the economy. The reasons cited include: the shift to natural gas and coal; the growing relative importance of the service sector; more efficient futures markets that allow manufacturers to lock in low prices for fuel; more energy-efficient technology in planes and cars; cost-cutting associated with (what else) the Internet; and Alan Greenspan. According to the Journal piece, the main reason oil prices have spiked to $25 a barrel–the highest in nearly 10 years–is that there’s been more compliance than usual with OPEC’s current effort to cut production. Even so, when you factor out inflation and taxes, a gallon of gas costs 10 cents less than it did in 1973.
But let’s take a look at that “to be sure” paragraph. A “to be sure” paragraph is exactly what it sounds like–a paragraph that carefully lays out significant caveats to the story’s main hypothesis. (Nowadays at the Journal, it’s considered somewhat hackneyed actually to include the phrase “to be sure” in your “to be sure” paragraph.) In Liesman and Schlesinger’s story, which is appropriately judicious, there are more than one “to be sure” paragraphs, but here’s the one that interests Chatterbox:
The real test may be yet to come. If industries stock up on fuel ahead of the New Year or a lengthy cold snap grips the Northeast, some analysts think oil prices could creep above $30 a barrel–a level seen only briefly during the Gulf War. That scenario worries some economists. If prices reach that height and stay there, “economic activity slows, and the trade deficit worsens,” says oil economist Phil Verleger of the Brattle Group, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass. “It can be a prescription for a fairly serious and sharp recession.”
Remember recessions? These were economic downturns, once thought to be cyclical in nature, that caused unemployment and general unhappiness. They frequently ejected sitting presidents (such as Jimmy Carter and George Bush) from the Oval Office. Assuming that recessions haven’t been rendered permanently extinct by the eight-year Long Boom, the reappearance of one before the 2000 election would be extremely inconvenient for Al Gore, whose platform essentially boils down to: “I don’t like what Bill Clinton did with his wanker, but I sure do like what he did with the U.S. economy.”
That’s where the necessity for a mild winter kicks in. If a frigid winter pushed oil prices high enough to trigger a recession, it would be very bad for Gore.* His chances of winning the general election–and maybe the nomination**–would be greatly diminished. On the other hand, if the temperature stayed warm, there would be no oil price spike, hence probably no recession. This is the sense in which Gore is an ironic beneficiary of global warming, the ongoing natural catastrophe that Gore’s been issuing jeremiads about for several years. (There is a complex argument that also blames cold snaps and other forms of extreme weather on global warming, but for simplicity’s sake Chatterbox will ignore it.) An added benefit of a warm winter, of course, would be that it would make it clearer than ever that Gore’s concern about global warming is well-founded.
If you are a Gore supporter, however, please do not interpret this to mean that you should climb into your SUV and drive around the block 12 times in order to dump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Most obviously, reducing carbon dioxide emissions is more important than electing Al Gore president. Secondarily, it probably wouldn’t cause the Earth to warm up quickly enough to make a difference in weather patterns for January, February, and March 2000. And, finally, if lots of people suddenly increased the number of miles they drove in their cars, oil prices would of course shoot up and create the very risk of recession that Gore supporters want to avoid.
*To-be-sure footnote: George W. Bush’s ties to the petroleum industry wouldn’t be looked on favorably during a recession triggered by high oil prices. But Bush would still probably reap a net benefit from not being associated with the current administration. If by some chance the nominee were instead John McCain, he would reap a larger benefit, since McCain isn’t associated in voters’ minds with the oil industry.
**A cold winter might conceivably help Bill Bradley win the nomination, but as a Democrat in the general election he’d have to contend with accusations that his party caused the recession.