Perhaps my visit to Vienna last week has left me with too much Freud on the mind. But, as I talk to more people about the consequences of the U.S. oil and gas boom, I can’t help but conclude that we don’t need economists or geologists to help us figure what’s going on – we need a team of psychoanalysts.
A few weeks ago I speculated that perceptions would play a big role in determining the impacts of the U.S. oil and gas boom. If U.S. policymakers came to believe that lower imports should make the United States more independent, they’d act as if that was true. Even if economic logic said that energy independence was a myth, the fact that policymakers believed otherwise would have real consequences.
A series of recent conversations with overseas acquaintances has only reinforced my belief that it’s essential to understand what’s going on inside peoples’ heads if you want to anticipate the consequences on what’s happening on the ground.
Take a recent chat with a well-connected Chinese individual. He told me that Beijing is concerned that the United States will start to neglect Middle East security and sea-lane protection if energy self-sufficiency becomes reality. That, of course, would cause problems for China, since it currently enjoys the benefits of those U.S. efforts for free. To the extent that Chinese leaders start taking steps to compensate for expected U.S. disengagement, those will have real consequences on the ground. The big thing to remember here is that much of this could happen regardless of what U.S. policymakers actually decide to do.
Or, if you want another example, take a conversation I had not long ago with a well-placed individual with stellar oil markets credentials from a Middle Eastern country that I won’t name. He was convinced that the United States wanted high oil prices. Why? High prices, he noted, would spur U.S. supply and hence make the United States self-sufficient. China, however, would suffer high prices without any similar response. That, he explained, would let the United States prevail over China for several decades to come. I assume that any U.S. official reading this will have started to laugh by now. But that’s quite beside the point: so long as others believe that this is what’s going on, they’ll act on that, with independent real world consequences.
I don’t doubt that there are many more examples of how perceptions of what’s going on in the United States vary drastically from place to place and person to person. So a request to the far-flung readers of this blog: send me a short dispatch explaining how experts and policymakers in your country are interpreting the American oil and gas boom. You can do it in the comments or by email (and, in either case, I’m happy to make it anonymous). I’ll pull together some highlights for a future post.