Why the Right's Zombie Lie About Gas Prices Is Wrong But They'll Never Let it Die

News & Politics

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.

Reality Check

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.

Domestic Supply Is Up While Demand Is Down

Time magazine's fact-check notes that “domestic oil production has steadily increased from about 5.18 million barrels a day in 2005 to more than 5.5 million barrels a day last year,” largely “thanks to a major increase in unconventional shale oil produced in Texas and North Dakota, which now produces more oil than the entire OPEC nation of Ecuador. There are more oil rigs now working in the U.S. than the rest of the world combined.” The New York Times notes that the production of “crude oil and other liquid fuels, onshore and offshore” is at its highest level since the 1980s.

Conservatives push back by claiming that production offshore and on federal lands has declined under Obama. But that's a lie based on a drop in production in 2011 and 2012. According to the Energy Information Agency, “production on federal lands and offshore during the first three years of the Obama administration was 13 percent higher than from 2006 to 2008.” Time also notes that Big Oil “is already sitting on 7,000 approved onshore drilling permits that have been unused, along with millions of acres under lease in the Gulf that haven't been explored yet.”

We are already importing less oil than we have in many years. According to the New York Times, “In 2005, oil imports accounted for nearly 60 percent of America’s daily consumption. In 2010, for the first time in recent memory, imports were less than half of consumption.”

That's in part because domestic demand has declined as a result of the recession. But it's not just the recession – the Times also reports that “Americans are getting more miles to the gallon, which means there’s that much less carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere.”

The recession has had a lot to do with the decline, but so has fuel efficiency. Ten years ago, cars and light trucks (including S.U.V.’s) averaged 24.7 miles a gallon. In 2011, the figure rose to 29.6 miles a gallon as consumers chose more efficient cars. Two landmark agreements between the administration and the automakers — aimed at improving efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases — could raise it to 55 miles per gallon by 2025. 

In other words, the administration's policies are in fact lowering fuel costs over the long haul, even if most of those benefits are yet to be realized.

Growth, Instability and Speculation

Domestic supply is up and demand down, so why are prices so high?

First, as our own consumption has declined, demand from the big developing economies – notably India and China (and to a lesser degree, Brazil)-- has increased. The International Energy Agency projects that Chinese demand alone – which will increase by 70 percent over 2009 levels by 2015 – will acount for 42 percent of new global demand over that time-period.

At the same time, instability in the Middle East and Africa has impacted global supplies, and, more importantly, speculation about future instability is helping keep those prices high. According to CBS News' fact-check, “rising gas prices have less to do with what’s happening out in the world than it does what’s happening inside places like the New York Mercantile Exchange.”

Commodities traders are betting that gas prices will continue to rise. By using billions of their private equity funds and their clients’ money to buy gasoline futures, they’re pushing the price of oil even higher, which in turn makes your gallon of gasoline more expensive, even though nothing bad in the Middle East has actually happened. Critics say speculators are capitalizing on the very fear they’re helping to generate.

According to a McClatchy review of Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) data, energy “producers and merchants made up just 36 percent of all contracts traded in the week ending Feb. 14 while speculators who will never take delivery of the oil made up 64 percent.”

“These people are making almost as much money today from trading commodities as they were making in investment banking just a few years ago,” Fadel Gheit, a senior analyst at Oppenheimer & Co. Gheit told CBS. “So, they are not going to unlearn how to make money. But all of us are going to pay for it.”

Last week, Senator Bernies Sanders, I-Vermont, along with several progressive co-sponsors, introduced a bill that would force CFTC to “use its emergency powers within 14 days to put limits on speculative trading in energy futures markets.” The measure is unlikely to go anywhere, because Republicans are making high gas prices a centerpiece of the fall campaigm.

Rick Santorum says Obama's foreign relations “failures” contribute to high gas prices. According to the AP, he “called Obama's Iran policy 'appeasement' that has emboldened the government to threaten to block oil shipments in the Strait of Hormuz, a major transportation route.” In reality, instability in the Middle East and Africa has been a reality for decades and can no more be laid at Obama's doorstep than at Santa Claus's. The irony is that Santorum favors an attack on Iran, which would send gas prices through the roof.

That's Just Reality

All of the above is well established and the corporate media are reporting it with headlines like, “Obama Sets Gas Prices? Just Another GOP Myth,” “Gas Prices and the Great GOP Lie” and “FACT CHECK: More US Drilling Didn't Drop Gas Price.”

Those headlines are the result of a broad consensus – a survey of 37 experts on the economics of energy were surveyed by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, and not one of them disagreed with the statement, “Changes in U.S. gasoline prices over the past 10 years have predominantly been due to market factors rather than U.S. federal economic or energy policies.”

But there are consensus views that humans are causing climate change and the president was born in Hawaii as well, yet polls show they are nonetheless rejected by a significant number of conservatives.

And these seemingly irrational positions are a source of unending frustration among progressives. There is, however, a growing body of research into how different cognitive styles influence ideology, and it suggests that the Right's rejection of what we consider established facts is neither a sign of insanity, in a clinical sense, nor stupidity as it's commonly understood.

On the surface, it has much to do with the development of what we might call an alternative information infrastructure that conservatives have developed to counter what they see as “liberal bias” in the media and the academy. Progressives dismiss this as a baseless conspiracy theory (I've called it that myself), but according to Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don't Believe in Science, that's only half true.

He reviewed a number of psychological and neurobiological studies that suggest that liberals are, on average, more likely to have “open” personalities, characterized by inquisitiveness and a tendency to value complexity over simple explanations, and this personality-type tends to drive them into fields like journalism and academic research. Mooney cites a lare study conducted at Yale University (PDF) which found that “people who rated very high on Openness were, on average, more liberal in outlook than 71 percent of the respondents (or, conversely, those who rated very low on Openness were more conservative than 71 percent of respondents.”

“Liberals come from the land of experts,” Mooney told AlterNet. “Academia is sort of a natural environment for liberals because people are open-minded and they express themselves with complexity and nuance, which is in keeping with the liberal personality. In general, liberals have more experts and they like experts. And conservatives, by contrast, don't spend as much time in academia and have come to view experts with a default distrust. Which isn't to say that they won't find an expert who tells them that they're right, because they will.”

When real expertise clash with facile talking-points presented by Fox hosts or Rush Limbaugh, we think the former should rule the day. But partisanship tends to play out differently in conservatives and liberals. Mooney cites research on “authoritarian personality types” – notably by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt – which suggests that conservatives tend to have a “simpler, more rigid form of thinking where you draw firm boundaries between good and evil, friend and foe, with me or against me – it's black and white, authoritarian. And what he says – and what the authoritarianism research also suggests – is that conservatives are more likely to draw on tribes, and liberals are more likely to say, 'well, humanity is our tribe.'”

As soon as they do that, says Mooney, then “anything is believable of someone who you really view as the enemy.” When issues are viewed in these terms, we raise cognitive defenses against anything that might threaten our own. Mooney cites a number of studies that detail how people are capable of rejecting information that challenges their beliefs or seeing faulty information which confirms them as reliable – it's known as “motivated reasoning” and it's a means of staving off stressful cognitive dissonance.

“Everybody does it,” says Mooney, but while “it's hard to disentangle it from the selective exposure to information,” he notes that “there is some evidence that conservatives are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning, especially about politics,” than are liberals. In fact, a series of studies conducted in 2005 and 2006 found that when partisans are confronted with factual corrections to their erroneous beliefs, it makes them more, rather than less sure in those mistaken beliefs. Good information, it seems, is not a corrective, and this phenomenon has been observed to be significantly more common among political conservatives than liberals.

Finally – and this gets back to liberals' relative comfort with complexity – Mooney says “we have to emphasize the quick nature of conservative thinking and their suspicion of explanations that are convoluted or too detailed. Which is what you associate with experts who often qualify themselves and conservatives often view that as kind of gobbledy-gook and want the simple answer.”

A study published recently in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin appears to confirm that view. Researchers found that “low-effort” thinking and snap judgements were associated with more conservative views. In one experiment, participants – both liberals and conservatives -- given alcohol were found to respond to questions more conservatively than when sober. In another, respondents were given limted time to work through an issue, and in a third, subjects were asked to examine “political terms in a cursory manner.” The authors concluded that, taken together, the “data suggest that political conservatism may be a process consequence of low-effort thought; when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.”

“Conservatives,” says Mooney, “tend to like ideas that make sense in a way that doesn't require you to think things through much. So, we've got oil, why don't we use it? It's right there under the ground.” That oil is traded on a global market that's heavily influenced by speculation is not a simple “bumper-sticker” story.

And so we'll go into another meaningless debate over a claim that's just silly on its face, and progressives will continue to hit their heads against the wall in frustration over what they see as their opponents' blindness. But the reality is that liberals and conservatives are not divided as much by values and philosophy as we are by very different cognitive styles.

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