Gas Prices in and out of Context: Hi and Lois need a Fact Check

On October 18 2014, the comic strip Hi and Lois comic strip looked back with fondness on a time when gas prices were just 35.9 cents a gallon.  At the present day, the middle-class character Hi grimaces as he pumps gas costing $3.99 cents a gallon.  In a meta-analysis of existing research, social scientist Michael R. Hagerty found that people tend to view their own lives as getting better but at the same time tend to look backward in time and conclude that the lot of the average person is getting worse.  In other words, we use rose-colored glasses to view our own lives, but gray-tinted glasses to view trends in the world in general.

Hi’s view of the world is certainly tinted gray in the strip you see below, but is this pessimist funk merited?  I don’t think so; the way out of the trap of our psychological biases is to check for sociological context.  Doing that, I’d alter the Hi and Lois strip from the original into a more realistic new version:

Put Hi and Lois in Context -- are gas prices in 2014 really that bad?

Correction 1: Gas hasn’t had a price of $3.99 per gallon in the United States since July of 2008. The average price per gallon of gas in the United States was down to about $3.10 in the middle of October 2014, and they’re getting even better a month later. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank Economic Research Database.

Correction 2: The last time gas cost 35.9 cents a gallon in the United States was the year 1969, but that literal price doesn’t tell the whole story; those 35.9 cents were worth a whole lot more in 1969 than they are worth today. If we adjust for inflation, paying 35.9 cents in 1969 had the same punch to our wallets as paying $2.32 today. Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics and InflationData.com.

Correction 3: Why do we put gasoline in cars? To go somewhere. Chance Brown forgets that the fuel efficiency of cars was far different in 1969 from the fuel efficiency we experience nowadays. In 1969, passenger cars traveled 13.6 miles on a gallon of gas, on average. In 2013, the last full year for which data is available, passenger cars traveled 36.0 miles on a gallon of gas, on average. Sources: U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration.

If we put all these pieces of information together, it turns out that on average and adjusting for inflation, it took 17 cents to travel a mile in a car in 1969. In contrast, it only takes 8.6 cents to travel a mile in a car today.  The depiction of gas prices as a rising social problem doesn’t match the cheaper cost of transportation today.  There may be other social problems associated with fossil fuel transportation, but economy is not one of them.  Unless Hi is driving an extra-large SUV and driving his fuel efficiency far below average, he should be smiling, not frowning.  Even and especially when trends seem obvious, it’s important to put them in context.

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