Paul Jacob

Last month, the President of the United States of America sicced his dogged army of regulators and prosecutors on the petroleum industry. Not for oil spills, mind you, but for raising prices.

Actually, he instructed his teams of lawyers and other federal operatives to work with state agencies looking for fraud in fuel markets. In the last few days, he’s made much of his crusade, talking it up on TV and radio. Backing up the prez, the Attorney General just formed the Oil and Gas Price Fraud Working Group.

The group is most interested in the role of speculators. They’re to blame!

But, with various senators and representatives huffing and puffing about “unwarranted” gas price hikes, what our government forces are really doing is engaging in a witch hunt.

And they’ve chosen a convenient target, well-suited for witch-huntery.

In Europe and America, right up to the Age of Enlightenment, witch hunters tortured and executed thousands upon thousands of innocent women and men. Behind it all? Fear. Fear of the plague. Fear of hidden influences. Fear of specialized knowledge (many “witches” were “wise women,” herbalists and midwives). Fear of the unknown.

And there are few things more unknown, today, to your average politician — or, perhaps, your average NPR-listening/TV-watching American — than prices. Or the role of speculators.

But ignorance is no excuse for a witch hunt.

This is what we know: Gas prices have risen in nominal values. Since gas is important to us, we all get a tad annoyed. I do, too. Such price increases mean I must spend less on other goods than I used to. It hurts to economize when things were going along so swimmingly before.

When, this “swimmingly”? You know, when the financial market was collapsing and the federal government hysterically over-reacted by throwing trillions of dollars of money it didn’t have at . . . speculators.

But hey: If speculators losing money in a huge, fiasco-of-a-bubble in 2008 were worth restoring to their previous glory, what is the reasoning behind turning on speculators when the price of a commodity rises?

I know, I know: Policy in a representative democracy cannot be consistent. But still, shouldn’t politicians have some notion of consistency? An itsy-bitsy one, at least?

Apparently, housing prices are supposed to go up forever (insane idea, to even want such a thing), and gas prices must never move up!

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.