SHARP AND sudden jumps in the price of oil have been the immediate cause of both of the last two recessions, as well as the present one. Despite two decades of painful experience, President Bush's White House insists on leaving energy policy to what it calls the free market. It has apparently cut all of the conservation measures out of the national energy plan now undergoing review -- and drastic revision -- at the top levels of the administration. Ideology is always the death of sensible policy and particularly in a field as highly polarized as energy.
Leaving energy to the free market means leaving it to the roller coaster of alternating shortages and gluts. These wild swings in oil prices are characteristic of all commodity markets, and in the case of oil they are aggravated by the concentration of reserves in a place that, in terms of its politics, you can fairly describe as the world's least stable. It produces not only close to half of the world's exported oil but a steady succession of wars and revolutions as well. Under these circumstances, a large industrial economy that chooses to leave its economy vulnerable to the free market -- that is, to the vicissitudes of Middle Eastern history and to pure luck -- is inviting the kind of trouble that this winter once again afflicts the United States.
This country is not nearly as dependent on imported oil as Japan or continental Western Europe. White the United States is now suffering through a recession, you may have noticed that the economies of Japan and Western Europe continue to grow steadily. How come? Is it possible that they are using intelligent energy policy to insulate their people's jobs and incomes from these notoriously erratic oil prices? Their automobile manufacturers, to take one prominent example, are not whipsawed between the years of expensive fuel, when buyers want high efficiency, and the years of cheap fuel, when they go for big cars with lots of power. Taxes take the price of gasoline up to a range of about $3.50 to $5 a gallon throughout Europe, and bounces in the cost of crude oil don't make much difference in driving patterns or styles of automobiles.
By fighting any serious attempt at conservation, the White House condemns its plan to irrelevance. Increased energy production is going to be necessary. That means drilling in the Alaskan wildlife refuge and building nuclear plants. But no administration will be able to get public support for that until it has shown that it is ready to cut waste. Any serious plan has to begin with conservation. Even in the midst of still another oil-fired recession, the Bush administration still isn't ready to talk seriously about conserving energy.