The Gasoline Dog That Isn't Barking


According to AAA, the current average national price for a gallon of gasoline is $3.11.  That’s 41 cents higher than it was a year ago.

It’s unusual to see gas prices spike during the winter – it usually happens during the summer, when vacation driving is at its peak.  Of course, the current prices aren’t really a “spike.”  It’s a steady and permanent increase that won’t ease up any time soon.  The Oil Price Information Service, which compiles real-time data on gas prices, noted in December that average American households were spending 76 percent more on gasoline than when President Obama took office.  We could see four-dollar gasoline this summer, with the highest gas prices in history right behind that.

Remember the last time gas prices surged, back in the spring of 2006?  It was a national crisis.  A contemporaneous MSNBC report on President Bush’s decision to halt the purchase of fuel for the government’s emergency reserve, and thus make more gas available for consumers, describes the “intense political pressure” on the President to do something about gas prices, which “Democrats sought to turn – like Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War – into an issue that hurts Bush’s standing with voters.” 

Democrats were grandstanding for public support by proposing gas tax holidays, and filling the airwaves with juvenile taunts, like this one from Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland: “What happened to Iraq oil, Mr. President?  You said Iraqi oil would pay for the war.  Ain’t seen no money.  Ain’t seen no oil.”

Gas prices are the dog that isn’t barking.  The current situation is far more serious than the 2006 or 2004 spikes, driven by market forces that cannot easily be reversed: increased demand from developing economies, OPEC isn’t interested in increasing production, and of course President Obama has effectively killed the domestic offshore oil industry.  Even if we started pumping more gas right away, we’d still need more refining capacity, which is expensive and time-consuming to develop.  And yet, public reaction to our rising gas prices has been fairly muted.

The big difference is the way our media is telling the story this time.  There is no saturation coverage, no breathless newsroom speculation about how much damage gas prices might do to the President and his party.  The evening news does not begin with a gloomy montage of unhappy consumers frowning beneath angry red LED price displays at fuel pumps. 

Consumers are enraged by rising gas prices to the precise degree the media tells them to be.  Everyone feels gas price increases.  They’re immediate and obvious, pulling a few extra dollars out of our pockets to pay for a commodity we frankly take for granted.  Our trips to the gas station are an annoying necessity to buy something we cannot live without, but do not savor.  A nickel bump in gas prices sucks another dollar out of your wallet, which bothers people… but only if the media keeps reminding them that filling the tank costs seven or eight dollars more than it did last year will they become furious.

Many other aspects of rising fuel prices will be invisible to consumers, unless the media harps on them.  The price of almost everything increases when gasoline prices perform a steep and sustained climb, since virtually all consumer goods have significant shipping costs.  Much of this increased cost is quietly folded into the price of goods, where it will remain hidden, unless the evening news shines a spotlight on it.

Permanent four-dollar gasoline, and the five-dollar gas coming right behind it, will permanently change the American lifestyle.  The media response to this reality is one of the easiest ways to demonstrate the nature of its biases.  If we were heading for such gas prices under a Republican president, it would be the lead news story every week, with no respite from the “intense political pressure.”  Under Obama, the most likely media response will be a series of stories about how the rest of the world already pays more than we do for gasoline, and how wonderful for the environment it will be to reduce the amount of internal combustion employed by car-crazy Americans.  Also, we really needed to exercise more, and bicycling is great exercise.