Oil Dependence — Tom Friedman’s False Narrative

Twisting Facts to Support an Agenda

Thomas L. Friedman, a New York Times Op-Ed Columnist, frequently writes on the topic of energy and the environment. One persistent habit he has is to omit certain important facts from a story — facts so important that they would greatly undermine the point he is trying to make. His latest column provides a perfect example:

Pass the Books. Hold the Oil.

His premise is that Taiwan is a model for other countries to follow, because they have no natural resources, and yet have managed to be very successful by investing in their people:

Because rather than digging in the ground and mining whatever comes up, Taiwan has mined its 23 million people, their talent, energy and intelligence — men and women. I always tell my friends in Taiwan: “You’re the luckiest people in the world. How did you get so lucky? You have no oil, no iron ore, no forests, no diamonds, no gold, just a few small deposits of coal and natural gas — and because of that you developed the habits and culture of honing your people’s skills, which turns out to be the most valuable and only truly renewable resource in the world today.

Count me among those who strongly believe in educated citizens. Unfortunately, Friedman’s essay does not advance that cause, but rather misleads by omitting some very important facts. The thrust of his argument is that Taiwan did not need natural resources to become so successful. Unfortunately, what Friedman omits is that Taiwan IS heavily dependent upon natural resources, they just get them from other countries.

Taiwan’s 2010 oil consumption was just over 1 million barrels per day for a country of 23 million people. Thus, per capita consumption of oil in Taiwan is just over 16 barrels per person per year. That is more than 6 times mainland China’s 2.5 barrels per person per year, and 60% higher than the EU’s 10.1 barrels per person per year. On the other hand their consumption is lower than the 22.7 barrels per person the U.S. used in 2010. (For both the U.S. and Taiwan, some of the oil that is imported is then exported as finished products; however both countries are highly dependent upon foreign oil).

Per capita imports tell an even more interesting story. Taiwan imports 13.9 barrels of oil per person per year. The U.S. imports 12.2 barrels per person per year. So Taiwan is even more dependent upon foreign oil than is the U.S., yet Mr. Friedman’s essay gives readers exactly the opposite impression.

Take a look at the other successes Friedman cites:

That’s why the foreign countries with the most companies listed on the NASDAQ are Israel, China/Hong Kong, Taiwan, India, South Korea and Singapore — none of which can live off natural resources.

Now here are the things that he did not mention:

  • Israel’s per capita oil consumption is 11.3 barrels per person per year, higher than the EU’s
  • China’s oil consumption has nearly doubled in the last decade, and they are now the 2nd largest oil consumer in the world
  • India’s oil consumption is up nearly 50% in the past decade
  • South Korea’s oil consumption is 17.8 barrels per person per year

Conclusion: Friedman’s Blueprint Doesn’t Exist

Despite the claims that these countries are highly successful without natural resources, the data say otherwise. They are simply living off of the natural resources of other countries.

But now — and you can see it from the comments following his article — he has led a great number of people to believe that these countries have the blueprint for success without oil. Why does that matter? Because then it greatly undervalues the importance of oil to modern society, which in turn leads to all sorts of false expectations and misguided legislation.

There is a legitimate point in his essay that investing in the education of a country’s citizens is important. But trying to extend the story as one of success despite a lack of natural resources — while overlooking the fact that the countries he cites are all high oil consumers — presents a false narrative.