Weak dollar, imperialist war push gas prices

By LeiLani Dowell

NYC FIST

Across the country, workers are adjusting as best they can to unprecedented high gas prices. Many avoided their usual car trips over this Memorial Day weekend as gas prices reached a record nationwide average of $3.88 per gallon—up 4 cents in one day and 65 cents higher than the previous year. Some have switched to public transportation, if available, as a means to get to work, school and grocery shopping.

Others are not as fortunate, with fewer options for public transportation in their towns. Cab drivers, mostly immigrant workers who face increasing gas prices but no fare increases, are in a particular bind. And while transportation is the main problem now, come winter many households will face increased heating oil prices as a result of the same forces pushing gas prices up.

Like the current food crisis, this crisis of increasing gas prices is global as well. Protests in ports around France, including the blockage of two oil refineries on May 23, have challenged high fuel prices. In Indonesia, student and political organizations organized protests in at least three parts of the country; thousands turned out and police arrested and brutalized dozens. (papernas-international.blogspot.com)

What’s going on? While capitalist economists argue over the primary cause of the high gas prices, many agree that several factors are involved. One is the historic increase in the price of crude oil, which as of May 27 was almost $129 per barrel—a jump of $84 since 2004. According to the U.S. government, crude oil accounted for 70 percent of the cost of gas drivers paid at the pump in the first quarter of the year. (Associated Press, May 24)

Another factor pushing up gas prices is speculative trading for oil futures contracts at worldwide stock exchanges. A futures contract is an agreement to buy or sell a commodity at a pre-determined price in the future.

Many analysts say that the increase in the price of oil futures has to do with the falling dollar. The Associated Press explains: “Oil is priced in U.S. dollars, and the weaker the dollar gets, the more attractive dollar-denominated oil contracts are to foreign investors—or any investor looking for a safe haven in the turbulent stock market. The rush of buyers keeps pushing oil futures to a series of new records, and the rest of the energy complex, including gasoline futures, has followed. That pushes up the price of gas that goes into your tank.” (May 24)

There’s no question that the fall of the dollar is a big factor. Oil-producing countries that get paid in dollars are increasingly buying goods and services from countries that use the euro or the yen. Unless they raise the dollar price of their oil, or demand it be paid for in a more stable currency, they will be losing money in their international commerce.

Top executives of the oil companies who testified to Congress a few days before the holiday weekend shrugged off any responsibility for the higher gas prices, blaming it all on the market. What they can’t hide, however, is that their monopoly control over the refining and distribution of petroleum products has allowed them to take record profits even as high prices create a real crisis for millions of workers.

Yet another factor in rising oil speculation involves the imperialist wars and aggression against Iraq, Iran and Venezuela—a neocolonialist policy that has been aided and abetted by the oil companies in no small fashion. The military is a huge consumer of oil. Also, prices rise with concerns about reduced oil supplies from these areas.

The Associated Press reports: “Oil prices rose $2.46 in one day last month amid reports a ship under contract to the Defense Department fired warning shots at two boats in the Persian Gulf that may have been Iranian. … That same day, gas prices rose another 2.1 cents to a then-record national average of $3.577 a gallon.” (May 24)

Contrary to popular belief, the culprit is not OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. OPEC has traditionally set limits on the production of oil by its member countries, so that the price of oil would be higher than in a “free” market. But these days, most member countries are producing to maximum capacity anyway, so the quotas mean little.

Furthermore, most refining is in the hands of the huge transnational oil companies, and they have not expanded refining capacity significantly since 1981. According to Department of Energy figures, world crude oil refining capacity in 1981 was 81.6 million barrels a day. In 2006, after a very big increase in world demand, it was 85.3 bbl/d. So calls on OPEC to pump more oil, like the one made recently by President Bush, are purely for political effect.

Devil in the design

The rising cost of gas would be less of an issue in the United States if the country were designed with the needs of its people in mind, as opposed to the auto and oil industry’s need for profits.

According to the American Public Transportation Association, the use of public transportation in the U.S. saves almost 4 million gallons of gasoline a day, provides a “vital link” for the more than 51 million people with disabilities in the U.S., and provides the elderly with access to things they need in everyday life.

Yet SurveyUSA reports that in a recent national poll they conducted, “Only 15 percent of Americans who own or lease cars say mass transit is a convenient option for them; 50 percent say taking mass transit would be inconvenient—and for one out of every three Americans, there is no mass transit available at all to meet their needs.” (surveyusa.com)

In the 1920s, when only one in 10 people in the U.S. owned cars, General Motors conspired to successfully destroy 100 streetcar systems nationwide. Since then, the U.S. has evolved into a car-cultured country.

The ultimate solution to all the economic crises workers face depends on eliminating a system that carelessly trades their welfare on exchange markets. A socialist solution wouldn’t depend on the increased destruction of the environment, such as President George W. Bush’s call to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, or the use of food for fuel instead of feeding people, as with corn grown to produce ethanol. Socialist planning would take the needs of the people, and the earth, into account when allocating resources for public transportation.

In the meantime, the crisis shouldn’t be on the backs of the workers, but the bosses who created it. They should be taxed to cover the cost of fuel needed to get to work, and they should be forced to pay for improving the public transportation infrastructure throughout the country.

E-mail: ldowell@workers.org

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