WHILE AMERICANS have shown themselves ready to send troops at enormous cost to defend the Saudi oil fields, they remain -- so far -- adamantly unwilling to cut oil consumption here at home. Their spokesman in these matters, President Bush, was right to send the troops and wrong to dance away from the question of gasoline conservation. But he knows his fellow citizens well. He senses that they are with him on the first but would resist him on the second. It's a curious mixture of values.
Someone observed at his press conference in Maine on Wednesday that Bush hadn't called upon Americans to conserve energy. "I call upon Americans to conserve," he amiably replied. But he went on to say that he was trying not to "panic" people. That's an interesting commentary on the national state of mind. The president has sent more than 35,000 troops to the Persian Gulf and has begun to call up the reserves, but he fears that a warning to cut gasoline use would set off a public panic.
At the same press conference he was asked whether his call to conservation would extend as far as his own use of his motorboat, which is reputed to use 25 gallons of fuel an hour. Not at all, he responded. He doesn't want to interfere with the recreation industry. It's August, after all, and American holidays run on gasoline.
How much of a shortage should the United States brace itself for? Since June the price of a gallon of crude oil has doubled, from about 38 cents to 76 cents. But there's no shortage so far. The price increases are all anticipatory, driven by hoarding and speculation on fears of war. If a few weeks pass without fighting, oil prices will probably begin slowly sinking. The world's boycott of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil reduces the world's supply by 7 or 8 percent, some of which will be made up by increased production in Saudi Arabia and perhaps other countries. If the world eventually finds that it has to reduce oil use by, say, 3 or 4 percent, it ought to be able to accommodate that without destroying anyone's way of life -- or driving prices into the sky.
The figures that count, incidentally, are the worldwide figures. There's been a lot of intense scrutiny of the amounts of Iraqi and Kuwaiti oil on which this or that country had depended. It doesn't make any difference how much any one country got from those sources. The market is global. Importers everywhere bid against each other.
How high will prices go? Consumers will influence the answer to that one. If they voluntarily cut down a little, oil companies will have trouble raising prices very far. But if everyone tries to grab as much as ever, leaving it to others to show restraint, prices will shoot up as high as necessary to enforce involuntary conservation. That's what happened the last time, a decade ago. It doesn't have to happen again. Prices depend not only on the way sellers behave but on the consumers as well.