The global economy and its recovery, and the living standards of millions of plain folks, are now at risk from the sudden rise in oil and commodity prices.
Gas at the pump is up, and going higher. Food prices are following. The consequences are catastrophic for the global poor as their costs go up while their income doesn't.
It's menacing American workers too, who in large part have not seen a meaningful raise since the days of Reagan (keeping it this way is clearly behind the current flurry of attacks on unions).
Already, unrest in the Middle East and many African countries is being blamed for these dramatic increases. It seems as if this threat to global stability is being largely ignored in our media, one that treats the oil business as just another mystical world of free market trading.
Why is it happening? Why all the volatility? Is oil getting scarcer, leading to price increases? Is the cost of food, similarly, a reflection of naturally increasing commodity prices?
While it's true that natural disasters and droughts play some role in this unchecked price inflation, it also seems apparent that something else is attracting increasing attention, even if most of our media fails to explore what is a political time bomb while most political leaders shrug their shoulders and ignore it.
President Obama recently said there is nothing he can do about the hike in oil and food prices. But critics say the problem is that government and media alike refuse to recognize what's really going on: unchecked speculation!
Not everyone buys into this suspicion. In fact, it is one of the more intense subjects of debate in economics.
Princeton University economist Paul Krugman pooh-poohs the impact of speculation, counter-posing the traditional argument that oil prices are set by supply and demand.
The Economist magazine agrees, summing up its views with a pithy phrase, "Speculation does not drive the oil price. Driving does."
Others, like oil industry analyst Michael Klare of Hampshire College, see demand outdistancing supply:
"Consider the recent rise in the price of oil just a faint and early tremor heralding the oilquake to come. Oil won't disappear from international markets, but in the coming decades it will never reach the volumes needed to satisfy projected world demand, which means that, sooner rather than later, scarcity will become the dominant market condition."
Usually you hear this debate in scholarly circles or read it in political tracts where orthodox views collide with more alarmist projections about the oil supply "peaking."
But officials in the Third World don't see the subject as academic. Reserve Bank of India Governor Duvvuri Subbarao charges, "Speculative movements in commodity derivative markets are also causing volatility in prices."
The World Bank is meeting on this issue this week because it is seen as a matter of "utmost urgency."
"The price of food is a matter of life and death for the very poorest people in the world," said Tom Arnold, CEO of Concern Worldwide, the international humanitarian agency, ahead of his participation at The Open Forum on Food at World Bank headquarters.
He adds, "with many families spending up to 80-percent of their income on basic foods to survive, even the slightest increase in price can have devastating effects and become a crises for the poorest."
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