The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for April 12th, 2012

Gas Prices and Politics: Fact vs. Fiction

Posted by mattusmaximus on April 12, 2012

I don’t usually post on economic issues, but I wanted to say a few things regarding the recent brouhaha regarding higher-than-usual gasoline prices in the United States.  The issue has become heavy political fodder due to this being a presidential election year, and there have been a number of dubious claims made on the matter.  So, to help sort fact from fiction on this issue, I would like to reference the following well-written article from Paul Brandus at The Week.

While there are a number of excellent points made throughout the article, I wanted to focus on the big #1 myth: the notion that the president of the United States has some kind of magical ability to control the price of gasoline…

Why you’re wrong about gas prices and politics

I recently wrote about the many myths and misunderstandings Americans have about gas prices, oil companies, and the presidency. A few folks got upset because the facts and figures I mentioned weren’t what they wanted to hear. But as John Adams said: “Facts are stubborn things.” With that in mind, here are a few more myths and misunderstandings — about gasoline, renewable energy, politicians — and the facts:

Myth #1: Presidents have major power over gas prices
Gasoline prices have more than doubled on Obama’s watch, from $1.89 on Inauguration Day in 2009 to last week’s $3.93 (AAA data). That’s an increase of 107 percent. But guess what? Gas prices skyrocketed 387 percent between 2002 and 2008, when the average price of regular went from $1.06 to $4.11, before dropping again before Obama took office.

Chart from Doug Short

When gas prices exploded from 2002 to 2008, Democrats — including then-Sen. Obama — were wrong to blame George W. Bush, just as Republicans are wrong to blame Obama for the 107 percent jump since 2009. So who can we blame? The “blame,” if that’s the word, lies largely with the ever-changing market cycles of supply and demand — not just in the U.S., but around the world.  I know, I know. It would be so much simpler if you could just blame one person for the rise in global commodity prices. But that’s not how it works. Sorry.

I find this kind of thinking, the willingness to blame those in power for whatever calamity that happens to befall you at any given time, to be fascinating.  I remember when gas prices were high back in 2007 and people were blaming then President Bush; and now some people are blaming President Obama.  It’s almost as if these folks, in their own minds, grant some kind of god-like powers to the president once they are elected; and of course our leaders do not have such powers.  I suppose it is a way of coping with the uncertainty in the world: rather than admit the reality that even our most powerful leaders are often quite powerless (and the implication that we, as individuals, have even less power than we thought) against the random nature of the universe, many people would make up a fiction that “they” (insert spooky music) are behind it all and to blame; so if we can only get “them” out of power, then things will automatically get better.  Such thinking is strikingly similar to that employed by many conspiracy theorists.

If you find yourself in this mode of thinking, I’ve got a news flash for you: reality doesn’t give a damn what you think; it doesn’t give a damn what the president thinks.  And casting blame hither and yon will do nothing to change that.  Sorry to burst your bubble.

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