Why the Right's Zombie Lie About Gas Prices Is Wrong But They'll Never Let it Die
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This fall, the country will be subjected to a partisan debate about gas prices, and one side of that debate will be wholly divorced from any objective reality. Republicans will continue to coalesce around the claim that Barack Obama is not only responsible for prices at the pump remaining stubbornly high, but actually wants Americans to face steep gas prices in order to promote conservation and the development of alternative energy sources.
On its face, the idea that a sitting president would want to go into an election year with high gas prices is as ludicrous as suggesting that he or she might hope for sky-high unemployment. But because it will form a central piece of the GOP's pitch for the White House, the media will treat it as a serious matter of controversy. (Just last week, Mitt Romney told Fox News that Obama “wanted to see gasoline prices go up," and "has been doing the job over the last three and a half years and [now] gas prices are up.")
That narrative will be debunked again and again in news stories and editorials. The self-appointed fact-checking organizations that have proliferated in recent years will rate the claim “untrue,” or “pants on fire,” or give it “3 Pinocchios.” The dwindling ranks of “serious” conservative commenters will also call out the fallacious argument for what it is. But for many on the right, objective reality simply won't penetrate. That Obama is responsible for high gas prices – that he wants them high – will become another un-killable “zombie lie” in our political discourse.
Progressives will in turn debate whether the GOP base is crazy, stupid or both. We will wonder whether the politicians conservatives trust are consciously lying to their constituents or have simply come to believe their own facile talking-points.
But that will be based on a simplification of how people process information, and how those on the left and right differ in that regard. Because what we are likely to see – based on a growing body of research into how cognitive biases and idelogy intersect – is that better informed conservatives will be more likely to believe a narrative entirely divorced from fact than those “low-information” voters about whom we always hear so much.
Here's the baseline of reality the fact-checkers are already laying out. There are two key points: first, domestic oil production has expanded significantly during Obama's term in office (even while domestic demand has declined); and second, rising domestic production has essentially no impact on oil prices, because oil is traded on a global market and the United States accounts for just 11 percent of global oil production and holds only 2 percent of the world's reserves.
So the price of gas moves in the United States as it does with the rest of the world – there is no independent “domestic energy market,” as this graphic shows quite clearly:
Because our domestic supplies represent such a small share of the whole, “drill, baby, drill” is meaningless when it comes to bringing down prices at the pump. As the AP fact-check notes, “a statistical analysis of 36 years of monthly, inflation-adjusted gasoline prices and U.S. domestic oil production...shows no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump.”
If more domestic oil drilling worked as politicians say, you'd now be paying about $2 a gallon for gasoline. Instead, you're paying the highest prices ever for March.
Sometimes prices increase as American drilling ramps up. That's what has happened in the past three years. Since February 2009, U.S. oil production has increased 15 percent when seasonally adjusted. Prices in those three years went from $2.07 per gallon to $3.58. It was a case of drilling more and paying much more.