GOVERNMENTS, it turns out, can learn from painful experience. Despite the war between Iran and Iraq, and despite the prospect that it will go on quite a long time, the world price of oil has not yet changed significantly. Prices will certainly go up in the next several weeks. The OPEC meeting that begins Monday in Bali provides an occasion for the major exporters to announce their New Year's increases. But there won't be the spectacular, pani-driven leaps that followed the Iranian revolution.
Last time, when Iran shut down, the industrial countries got frightened and began snatching and grabbing for oil. Britain's prices for North Sea oil shot upward faster than OPEC's. With Germany in the lead, the Europeans began wildly bidding for any oil for sale anywhere. The United States first tried to discourage the competition but then, as gasoline supplies tightened, swung around and anxiously joined in. That was the mechanism that doubled the price of OPEC's oil during 1979.
Since last summer, despite the fighting, it's hardly changed at all. The spot price is up a little, but not much oil is actually being sold on the spot market. This time the big consumers kept their nerve. That saved them a lot of money. They are also cutting their imports, which is saving them a lot more money.
The OPEC governments have similarly learned from experience. After the first great oil crisis pushed oil prices in 1974, they changed very little for nearly five years. In real terms -- adjusted for inflation -- those prices dropped nearly one third. The exporters have declared that they will not let it happen again. The Bali meeting may become the point at which they adopt the long-discussed schedule of regular increases to compensate for the inflation of the dollar. That promises a dangerous circularity, since past oil price increases have quite a lot to do with the inflation for which the exporters now wish to be compensated. The message from Bali is that price stability is not yet in sight.
The consuming countries have been sensible this year, and benefited from it. But they have also been very lucky. The war in the Persian Gulf has not spread, as it easily might have. Production outside the Middle East has been rising, notably in Mexico. During this war, nothing else has simultaneously gone wrong. That was real luck, and too much now depends on luck. While the war hasn't plunged the world into an immediate and dire shortage, it has eliminated the margin of safety that had begun to appear last summer. The world's oil markets are now in a most delicate and vulnerable balance.
The price announcements, whether this week from Bali or later from the Middle East, will remind Americans that they have not yet regained any reliable degree of control over the stability of their economy and their oil supply. There's still only one way to do that. That's to keep raising prices here -- a stiff gasoline tax is still the best idea -- and to keep cutting the consumption of foreign oil.