Paul Greenberg

With gasoline prices now only medium outrageous, Gentle Reader may have forgotten how eager politicians were last year to find someone to blame when the pain at the pumps was off the charts.

The usual congressional investigation was hastily called, the usual outrage expressed, and the usual suspicions voiced with the usual lack of any economic effect. Then the political ritual was concluded, prices fell in the normal course of economic events, and few now ask whether there was anything to all that talk. It's a question worth asking as a lesson in politics - and economics.

Mark Pryor, the junior senator from Arkansas, was one of those making roundhouse accusations back then. In search of the nearest scapegoat for high oil prices, he settled for the same old one: dastardly Big Oil. The senator was out to protect us, so he said, from "the greed and profiteering in the oil marketplace" - not to mention economic literacy.

So what happened? Even though Sen. Pryor joined a number of his colleagues in trying to bully the Federal Trade Commission into cooking up some evidence to back up his conspiracy theory, all the FTC could do was reach the same conclusion it usually does: There was no substance to his charges.

Once again the bogeyman turns out to be nothing more sinister than the law of supply and demand. Sure enough, when supply dwindles and demand goes up,so do prices. Big surprise.

But every time gas prices go up, a certain kind of politician is shocked, shocked! Or at least pretends to be. And demands an investigation. Which is a lot easier than taking Economics 101 all over again.

Naturally the politician blames some vague, amorphous monster out there like Big Oil rather than the real-life owner-operator of your neighborhood filling station. After all, the little guy votes.

And it's too much trouble to think this thing through - as Henry Hazlitt did in his dandy little primer, "Economics in One Lesson."

To quote Mr. Hazlitt, "we cannot hold the price of any commodity below its market level without in time bringing about two consequences. The first is to increase the demand for that commodity. Because the commodity is cheaper, people are both tempted to buy, and can afford to buy, more of it. The second consequence is to reduce the supply of that commodity. Because people buy more, the accumulated supply is more quickly taken from the shelves of merchants. But in addition to this, production of that commodity is discouraged."

Gosh, just like gasoline last year.

If there's an avaricious cartel setting oil-and-gas prices, it's called OPEC. But oil sheikhs and Venezuelan caudillos are scarcely subject to a congressional investigating committee.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.