Talking Points

A high price for patriotism, paid by those who can least afford it

There's a scene in Jack Kerouac's counterculture classic On the Road where the impecunious characters are so broke they have to coast their car down a mountain to reach the next town. Finding an open pawnshop, they exchange a new watch for one dollar — enough to replenish the tank and get back on track. 

Kerouac probably wouldn't be very happy if he pulled up to the pump today. According to the American Automobile Association, average gas prices hit an all-time high of $4.17 this week.

Because it isn't adjusted for inflation, vehicle efficiency, or total income, that number is somewhat misleading. But real costs have increased sharply over the last two years and are approaching levels last seen in the late 2000s. And the Biden administration's decision to ban Russian oil will likely exacerbate the problem. 

To Republicans, rising prices are an irresistible opportunity to criticize the president without directly challenging his response to the Ukraine crisis. In a press conference yesterday, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif) argued that "the main reason Americans are paying so much is bad domestic policies."

To Democrats, on the other hand, the war offers a welcome chance to shift attention away from the administration. Polls suggest that a large majority of the public is willing to accept measures to punish Russia even if they cause higher prices at the pump. 

With conditions in Ukraine still fluid, it's hard to predict how the politics of gas prices will develop over the coming weeks and months. As the parties seek their advantage, though, it's important to remember that the burdens are hardly imaginary. Americans premise some of their most important economic decisions on the assumption that fuel will be relatively cheap. That includes the selection of cars, residences, and employment. In the long term, consumers can adjust. In the coming weeks and months, though, it's not so easy just to drive less. 

For many Americans, then, quick price increases are more than a minor inconvenience. They're a practical necessity that drains money from expenditures on food, clothing, and housing as well from from saving and discretionary spending. Since those goods have to be produced and shipped, moreover, costly energy raises their prices, too.   

Gas prices may well continue to rise, and you can count on the administration to appeal to patriotic duty and shared sacrifice to justify the results. The truth is, neither Biden nor Putin is solely responsible for the situation. But denying it's a real and growing problem? That's what they call gaslighting.