It's time for the annual eggnog essay. At year's end, this reporter rummages around his desk (widely famous as the world's messiest) and tries to make sense or nonsense of what has happened in the past 12 months.
Mostly nonsense. These essays demand humor, but somehow this year's mood hasn't produced the customary mirth. What follows, then, is one reporter's excessively serious smorgasbord of what was curious and significant last year in his specialty--the economy.
Most important economic event: the decline in oil prices.
Confounding expert predictions, world oil prices decreased modestly and, in "real" terms (after adjustment for inflation), probably dropped 10 to 12 percent. Some specialists now think that prices might decline sharply, perhaps to $25 dollars a barrel from today's $35. Even level prices would mean a further cut in "real" prices.
A cause for rejoicing? Probably not. The overriding reality of oil remains unchanged: Perhaps 40 percent of the world's supply comes from politically unstable regions, where production could cease at a moment's notice. Perversely, a sharp decline in real oil prices might increase our vulnerability, because energy-conserving investments --which make sense at higher prices--would no longer look attractive.
Today's price softness represents a reaction to the sharp run-up (from $14 a barrel in late 1979 to $35 by early 1981) caused by the Iran-Iraq war. Businesses and individuals cut back consumption. In the noncommunist world, demand dropped about an eighth, from 52.5 million barrels daily in 1979 to about 47 million in 1981, and it is apparently still dropping.
Reversing this trend makes little sense. The government ought to consider a variable fee on oil to keep its real price constant. The fee could be a tariff on imported oil or an excise tax on oil products, such as gasoline and heating oil. Arguments can be made for either, but Washington isn't debating the issues. To the extent that fees are being discussed, they're simply viewed as a way of raising revenue.
Most interesting statistic: wood now provides more energy than nuclear power.
That comes from Amory Lovins, the Pied Piper of "soft energy." What has happened in wood is mildly amazing. Between 1972 and 1980, Americans bought nearly 7 million wood-burning stoves; nearly one in 10 American homes (most of them in New England and the upper Midwest) may now use wood as a fuel.
In addition, the paper and pulp industry has increased its own use of wood by-products as fuel. Plywood factories and sawmills use chips and sawdust; pulp plants use liquid wood residue.
Adding all these up, Lovins figures that wood provides between 1.3 and 2.1 quads of delivered energy, compared with 0.8 quads for nuclear energy (a quad is a quadrillion British thermal units of energy). Even if his estimate is high (and he thinks it low), wood fuel would still rival nuclear energy.
That underscores not only nuclear's problems, but also people's adaptiveness. The frequent assumption in Washington is that people can't (or won't) adapt to change; the evidence here is that they do.
Worst regulatory decision: rescinding the requirement that cars be equipped with automatic seat belts.
About 9 to 11 percent of Americans now wear seat belts. If automatic seat belts had raised that to 30 percent, they would have provided sufficient savings in reduced deaths and injuries to justify any additional costs. By some estimates, the crossover point was lower, in part because the auto makers may have inflated cost estimates of the automatic belt systems.
Would the belts have achieved 30 percent usage? Nobody knew. When Volkswagen installed automatic seat belts, usage went from about 35 percent to 75 percent, but VW's experience may have been exceptional. Citing this lack of information, the administration squashed the regulation on the ground that automatic belts might be unpopular and--if usage remained low--extra costs couldn't be justified.
Take your pick. This decision was (a) cowardly (b) cynical or (c) callous. A respectable case can be made that government shouldn't protect people against themselves: If people don't want to wear seat belts, so be it. If the Reagan administration wanted to make that case, it should have asked Congress to change the existing auto safety law.
But that law requires "reasonable" steps to protect safety. This was reasonable--a gamble worth taking. After a few years, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would have known the public's response. If the gamble hadn't worked, the rule could have been revoked; if it had worked, thousands of lives would have been saved in an era when small cars are making driving more hazardous.
Worst phrase of the year: Reaganomics.
No one can say what "Reaganomics" is. It's simply one of those catch-all words that means anything or everything. That it's used by both the administration's defenders and its detractors is a measure of society's economic illiteracy.
The phrase relieves people of any obligation to explain how the economy works or how the government can affect it. The simplification fails to distinguish between different strands of policy--many of them contradictory, some good and some bad--and perpetuates the illusion that there's a sort of magic potion (Reaganomics, in this case) that can cure all ills. If this be a sin--and this reporter thinks it is--Republicans and Democrats are equally guilty.
The end of the year inspires reflection and even humility. This reporter is struck by the pithy observation of how lucky he is to have an opportunity to expess his opinions and ideas publicly. Thousands, perhaps millions, of others yearn for it, think themselves better qualified to do it and, being denied it, feel deprived and frustrated. Yet this reporter takes it for granted; it's a way of life--something more than a job and less than a calling.
This is not so much as awesome responsibility as an impossible one. We often fool ourselves and sometimes (unintentionally, one hopes) our readers. We sound authoritative--we have to--when our understanding is only superficial and, at times, our ignorance is profound. But deadlines come, and they must be met.
The work is not abusive, but it is compulsive. If there is some consolation for those who don't sit at these typewriters (or, increasingly now, computer terminals)--and wish they did, it is that they don't have to live with the constant forebodings of approaching deadlines. Most of us have only a few ideas and, with new variations, simply repeat ourselves.
Happy New Year! 1981 National Journal Samuelson writes regularly on economic affairs for National Journal, from which this article is reprinted.