Dean Baker on the Price of Oil

Recently, Mrzine, the online magazine of the Monthly Review Foundation, published the testimony of the left Keynesian economist Dean Baker to the U.S Congress. Baker attempted in his testimony to refute the claims made by right-wing bourgeois economists that the spike in oil and gasoline prices earlier this year was caused by the U.S. Federal Reserve Board’s policy of “quantitative easing.”

What is “quantitative easing”? And why has the U.S. Federal Reserve System, which under the dollar system acts in effect as the world’s central bank, been following such a policy?

Last year, the outbreak of the European sovereign debt crisis, followed by a distinct pause in the global economic recovery, brought fears of a renewed global recession. The U.S. Federal Reserve Board announced that it would purchase $600 billion worth of U.S. bonds in a bid to stave off a “double-dip” global recession. Or what comes to exactly the same thing, the Fed in effect announced that it was going to transform $600 billion in U.S. government debt into green U.S. paper dollars—or their electronic equivalent.

Since last December when the quantitative easing program actually kicked in—it had been announced earlier—the quantity of token money denominated in U.S. dollars has jumped by more than 35 percent. To put this number into perspective, during the prosperous post-World War II years, the quantity of U.S. token money rarely grew more than 3 percent per year.

Between May 21, 2010, and April 29, 2011, oil prices jumped almost 62 percent, peaking out at over $113 per barrel. In response, gasoline prices have soared. World food prices have also increased sharply in terms of the depreciated U.S. dollar.

Even before the explosion in the quantity of dollar token money began, speculators anticipating the expected increase in token dollars began to push up the dollar price of gold, oil and primary food commodities. The dollar price of gold rose from $1,177 per troy ounce on May 21, 2010, to $1,556 per troy ounce on April 29, 2011. Or what comes to exactly the same thing, the U.S. dollar in terms of gold was devalued against gold by more than 24 percent in the same period.

When speculators expect a change in the quantity, or rate of growth of the quantity, of token money, they act accordingly, causing currency prices of gold and primary commodities to change even before the expected change actually occurs. If the expected change fails to materialize, markets will then react sharply in the opposite direction. This is exactly what happened in late 2008. But this was not the case in 2010 and 2011, since this time the expected changes in the quantity of dollar token money have indeed fully materialized.

So it would seem on this issue that the right-wing bourgeois economists who blame the U.S. Federal Reserve System for the spiking oil, gasoline and food prices have a point, though the alternative might well have been a renewed global recession.

However, in his congressional testimony the progressive economist Dean Baker challenged the view that the Federal Reserve policies have had much to do with this year’s spiking oil and gasoline prices. (Baker didn’t deal with the question of food prices in his congressional testimony.) Since the MRzine editors decided that Baker’s testimony was worth publishing, it is worth examining Baker’s arguments in some detail.

Presumably, MRzine published Dean Baker’s testimony because the editors believe that Baker is the kind of left Keynesian that Marxists can and should be working with as part of Monthly Review’s general policy of attempting to push the U.S. economics profession back toward Keynesianism, which dominated it in the years immediately after World War II, as opposed to the neo-liberal theories that have dominated since the 1970s. Indeed, Baker as an economist is probably about as far to the left as you can get in the U.S. and still be a bourgeois economist. It is therefore instructive to examine Baker’s approach to the question of the recent rise in oil and gasoline prices.

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