Vice President George Bush, in begging Saudi Arabia to stabilize the price of oil -- so as to bail out domestic producers and overcommitted banks -- has slipped into the practice of the worst kind of "voodoo economics."
That's the conclusion of experienced oil analyst and consultant Philip K. Verleger Jr., who adds: "The notion of crawling on hands and knees to ask the Saudis to cut their production is unspeakable, awful and stupid."
The Reagan administration appears to have panicked in the last couple of days as oil prices slipped under $10 a barrel, abandoning its traditional free-market philosophy in favor of the kind of protectionism it denied to machine- tool, steel, microchip and other industries that for one reason or other cried for help.
If the United States is worried enough to be talking about stabilizing oil prices, the adjustment more logically should come from this country, which is the world's leading crude-oil producer at the moment -- and a high-cost producer at that -- and not from the Persian Gulf states, which are the low-cost producers. That would be a sound economic approach.
But even worse is the utter indignity of a vice president of the United States -- fronting for the entire Reagan administration -- pleading with the Saudis to reduce their output of oil and to get the cartel working again.
The day before Bush told reporters that he would be "selling very hard" to get the Saudis to understand that they were threatening "the interest of our national security" by flooding the markets with oil, Energy Secretary John S. Herrington delivered the same pitch, talking of the "dire straits the American oil and gas producers are in." Was he equally worried about skyrocketing oil prices from 1973 through 1982, which touched off global recession and exploded the debt obligations of the Third World?
According to New York oil broker Harry Neustein, who has his own network of information throughout the Middle East, "the Saudis are laughing at us. They say: 'We've built up an industrial program, and to pay for it, we're going to sell oil. Does Bush think we're going to keep it in the ground?'
The lesson that American politicians never seem to learn is that our "special friends," the Saudis, have always ignored abject pleas from the United States, starting with Henry Kissinger's begging routines in Riyadh in the 1970s. Subsequent trips by former energy secretary James Schlesinger, Treasury secretary Michael Blumenthal and Treasury undersecretary Anthony Solomon were rewarded with price increases rather than restraint.
One of those dignitaries, confronted with the "second-shock" price boost in 1979, right after a journey to Riyadh, asked a subordinate: "How could they do this to me?"
The answer, of course, is "very easily," and if Bush goes through with his foolish request, he will get the same sort of rebuff.
The question that must be answered is how we cope with the admittedly real problem that cheap oil poses for domestic producers -- and for the banks that unwisely lent hundreds of millions of dollars on an overassessed value of oil in the ground.
Domestic producers have been urging the administration to protect them by imposing an oil import fee of $5 or $10 a barrel, artificially raising the price to a level that would keep them in business.
But an oil import fee of just $5 a barrel, Verleger calculates, would be a $29 billion annual cost item for the United States, which uses about 5.8 billion barrels a year. That would be a drag on economic activity, cancelling a part of the huge boost to economic growth derived from falling oil prices.
A better way of offering some help to independent oil producers, Verleger suggests, would be to provide a subsidy to independent producers -- specially for marginal wells -- so they won't disappear from the scene. Thus, if oil settled at $10 a barrel, the United States could buy oil from such producers for placement in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve at around $15 a barrel. As much as 200,000 barrels a day could be stockpiled at a cost between $3 billion and $4 billion.
But it's difficult to make a case for a bail-out of troubled banks, which -- at a time that oil was selling for $30 to $40 a barrel -- were speculating that it would go as high as $100 a barrel. Over the $100,000 insurance- per-depositor level, they should get no consideration.
The pattern of greedy investment was fostered by the leading energy analysts and advisers for banks and brokerage houses -- well- known "experts," widely quoted in establishment journals such as Foreign Affairs -- who proved to be consistently wrong on the oil market. They failed to foresee that an oil glut would result from conservation, efficiency and the entry of new producers, forcing prices lower. They had -- and still have -- a vested interest in high oil prices. They have led the oil industry and the bankers into the pres abyss. Their advice now, apparently being bought by George Bush, is for collusion in a worldwide cartel. The Reagan administration would do well to go back to its basic principles.