FINALLY, OPEC gave up and went home. It couldn't agree on any limits at all on oil prices, and as a result -- for a while -- the escalator will keep going up. Eventually it will stop, but on one can yet say exactly where. It will be the point at which the sellers of the most expensive oil suddenly run out of buyers. That will probably happen, as it did the last time, amidst a worldwide recession of severe and damaging dimensions.
There is a clear pattern to these ominous events. The lesson of the past decade is that the power to set oil prices resides with the government that controls the greatest spare capacity to produce. For a generation, beginning in the Depression, the United States kept its actual production well below potential capacity through a complex system of prorationing. In those years, the United States effectively set world oil prices. But by the early 1970s the American fields were operating at full tilt, and in 1973, in the summer before the Arab embargo, shortages began to develop. Because the United States had no spare capacity, the power to set prices passed to the Persian Gulf -- more specifically, to Saudi Arabia.
It is now apparent in retrospect that the Saudis' power was broken by the Iranian revolution, and the sharp drop in Iranian exports. Although the Saudis still have far more discretion to raise or lower production than any other government, the swing is not large enough to cover the entire Iranian shortfall. The market remains extremely tight even when Saudi producion stays high, as it has all summer and fall.
The power to set prices has not passed to any other government. Instead, as the OPEC meeting in Caracas demonstrated, it has vanished altogether and the world is in for a period of anarchy. Prices will rise until some of the customers drop out of the game. Then, when the world is once again burning slightly less oil than it can produce, power will return to whichever government -- probably Saudi Aragia's again -- most effectively controls a marginal supply.
That's why its urgent for Americans to cut down on oil consumption now. What counts is the worldwide total. Oil saved in the United States now will help relieve future price pressures on the poorest nations in Africa and Asia. Any oil saved anywhere brings the world closer to the point at which the exporters begin to run out of customers.
That's also why Sen. Edward Kennedy's campaign to preserve cheap gasoline, under price controls, is particularly misdirected. President Carter apparently feels vulnerable to the charge that the administration should have got the windfall tax in place before it began decontrolling oil prices.Presumably that is why, over the weekend, Mr. Carter made the symbolic gesture of delaying the decontrol of a small amount of current oil production until Congress enacts the tax. But decontrol is the right policy. Nobody likes higher prices, but higher prices -- plus a stiff tax --are necessary to push down consumption. Talking about the promise of solar energy for the year 2000 isn't going to help much in 1980. For 1980, what counts is getting oil imports down--fast. Sen. Kennedy says that he is campaigning for stronger national leadership. But he is currently leading the retreat from the realities of the energy crisis.