Walter E. Williams

Nationally, the average per gallon price for regular gasoline is $2.50.
Are gasoline prices high? That's not the best way to ask that question. It's akin to asking, "Is Williams tall?" The average height of U.S. women is 5'4", and for men, it's 5'10". Being 6'4", I'd be tall relative to the general U.S. population. But put me on a basketball court, next to the average NBA basketball player, and I wouldn't be tall; I'd be short. So when we ask whether a price is high or low, we have to ask relative to what.

 In 1950, a gallon of regular gasoline sold for about 30 cents; today, it's $2.50. Are today's gasoline prices high compared to 1950? Before answering that question, we have to take into account inflation that has occurred since 1950. Using my trusty inflation calculator (, what cost 30 cents in 1950 costs $2.33 in 2005. In real terms, that means gasoline prices today are only slightly higher, about 8 percent, than they were in 1950. Up until the recent spike, gasoline prices have been considerably lower than 1950 prices.

 Some Americans are demanding that the government do something about gasoline prices. Let's think back to 1979 when the government did do something. The Carter administration instituted price controls. What did we see? We saw long gasoline lines, and that's if the gas station hadn't run out of gas. It's estimated that Americans used about 150,000 barrels of oil per day idling their cars while waiting in line. In an effort to deal with long lines, the Carter administration introduced the harebrained scheme of odd and even days, whereby a motorist whose license tag started with an odd number could fill up on odd-numbered days, and those with an even number on even-numbered days.

 With the recent spike in gas prices, the government has chosen not to pursue stupid policies of the past. As a result, we haven't seen shortages. We haven't seen long lines. We haven't seen gasoline station fights and riots. Why? Because price has been allowed to perform its valuable function -- that of equating demand with supply.

Walter E. Williams

Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and is the author of 'Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?' and 'Up from the Projects: An Autobiography.'
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