John Stossel

At a recent press conference Sen. John Kerry was upset as he snarled, "Oil companies in America are reporting record profits. Record profits."

When did profit become a dirty word?"

I wish the oil executives would face the media. They could say something like:

"What are you complaining about? What do you think we do with our profits? Buy fancy cars and homes? Well, we do, actually, but nearly all the money goes to looking for more oil and following environmental rules that you want us to follow. You should want us to make more profit. Anyway, we make less profit per gallon than your beloved government takes in taxes."

But Big Oil never shouts back at the reporters. I guess I can't blame them, given the hostility of the economically ignorant media.

This month the media claimed that gasoline prices had reached a "new record."

"Filling up is more expensive now than it's ever been." That's Julie Chen of CBS.

"A record high." -- Brian Williams, NBC

"Another record high." -- Charlie Gibson, ABC

" ... [R]ecord high of, get this: [ka-ching] $3.18 a gallon." -- Jon Scott, Fox

No, Jon, get this: It's not a record high. It only looks that way if you don't adjust for inflation. And that's just silly. It's like saying the movie "Rush Hour II" out-earned "Gone with the Wind." The media should quote prices in real dollars, but when they get excited, they don't. As the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) acknowledges, once you adjust for inflation, it turns out that gasoline cost more 25 years ago, in 1981. When the 1981 price is converted to 2007 prices (not 2006 prices, as originally used at the EIA website), last week's average price of $3.22 was seven cents below the record, $3.29, which, by the way, was a monthly average.

Even if gasoline prices set no record, Congress surely set a record for inanity. What else are we to say about an anti-"gouging" bill passed last month by the House that would make it a crime to charge "unconscionably excessive" prices, "tak[e] unfair advantage of unusual market conditions," and "increase prices unreasonably" during an emergency?

Please. Lawyers will get rich debating vague words like those. Laws are supposed to be clear so we'll know in advance what's legal and what's not. But there's nothing clear about those "crimes."

That's not legislation. It's legislative posturing. Considering the perverse incentives of electoral politics, I'm amazed this bill got only 284 votes.

And Congress should know better. After Hurricane Katrina, Congress had the Federal Trade Commission investigate price gouging, and so the FTC studied price spikes going back years. But it found "no instances of illegal manipulation."


John Stossel

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "No They Can't: Why Government Fails, but Individuals Succeed." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at >johnstossel.com. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com. ©Creators Syndicate