Obama's the first Democrat to face down rising gas prices in an election year since Carter. But he has advantages his unfortunate predecessor didn't.
Cars line up for gasoline during the 1979 fuel shortage / Image: Wikipedia
Gas prices are up, and there's a Democrat in the Oval Office seeking reelection. What year is it?
For Politico, 2012 is 1980 all over again, and the newspaper is now pondering whether President Obama will end up "owning" high gas prices much the way Jimmy Carter did by the end of his term in the White House.
It's certainly possible that, as fuel costs inevitably rise in the coming months, enough cash-strapped voters will start casting blame on the president to cripple his reelection chances. You never know. But economically, comparing Carter's dire predicament, which he notoriously mishandled, with Obama's is silly, in part because you can't look at gas prices in a vacuum. The late 1970s were an economic nightmare in which fuel costs were one of several scourges. Today, we're looking at a strengthening recovery that's better equipped to withstand a bit of pain at the pump.
Here are four big reasons to ignore those Carter comparisons:
No. 1: The U.S. isn't in a fight to the death with inflation
If there's a single graph that captures the misery of America's economy in the 1970s and early 1980s, it's the one below. That blue line? It's the non-core inflation rate, which includes the cost of goods like food and energy which get left out of other measures. Notice that in late 1978, when the Iranian revolution helped send oil prices soaring, prices were already rising at more than 7 percent a year. U.S. policy makers had been trying and failing to slay inflation for most of the decade, and the sudden shock of high oil prices helped set the rate completely out of control. Expensive crude made gas, as well as consumer goods, more expensive. That sent workers bargaining for higher wages, which made prices to rise further. Presto chango: an inflationary spiral.
But it got worse. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker's early, haphazard attempts to slow down runaway prices and save the value of the dollar led to sky high interest rates, which sent the economy tumbling into recession by the summer of 1980 -- right in the middle of Carter's re-election campaign. By July, unemployment topped out at 7.9 percent (it eventually dropped back to 7.1 percent by November).
Today, inflation is just about dead last on America's list of potential economic problems. Workers also aren't in much of a position to bargain for higher pay based on their weekly gas tab. So high gas prices aren't going to lead to the same terrifying wage-price spiral that, along with some clumsy tinkering by the Fed, demolished the economy under Carter.
No. 2: We don't have ridiculous regulations on selling gas
The long lines of drivers waiting outside gas stations for a chance to fill up might be the iconic image of Carter-era economic malaise. But the gas shortages that yielded those lines weren't a direct result of high prices. Rather, they were the produced of an ill-designed system of price and distribution controls, which led gas stations to sell off what limited fuel they had on a first-come-first-serve basis, then close up shop early. To get a sense of how horribly the government's regulation distorted the market for gasoline, check out this 1979 paper from the Brookings Institute. Among their myriad unintended consequences, the controls actually made it more profitable for refineries to stash away gasoline supplies and sell them at a later date, even if there was an immediate shortage. Thankfully, those kinds of regulations went out of style along with disco.
No. 3: Iran (probably) isn't going to stop selling oil
One of the eeriest similarities between today and the Carter era is the role Iran is playing in sending up gas prices. Then, it was fallout from the Iranian revolution. Today, it's uncertainty generated by U.S. and European attempts to stop Tehran's nuclear program. But there are big, gaping differences between the challenges of of 33 years ago and today.
In December of 1978, following the revolution, Iran's new leaders halted all oil shipments (they resumed a small amount the following March). At the time, the country was the world's second largest oil exporter. The market panicked, and the price of crude increased 150 percent over the coming year. Gasoline prices followed, jumping 55 percent in six months.
The current confrontation between Iran and the West is scary, yes. But unless it erupts into outright war, chances are we won't see similar supply disruptions compared to what happened in 1979. The U.S. has levied sanctions on Tehran aimed at limiting it's ability to sell oil. But as I wrote yesterday, they're not intended to take all of their crude off the market. Iran, for its part, is reportedly so desperate to to sell oil that it's offering barter deals.
No. 4: We're used to high gas prices
There's no question about it: When oil prices rise rapidly, they can hurt the economy. But when it comes to determining just how bad the damage will be, it's important to look at where oil prices have been in the recent past. James Hamilton, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, has come up with a formula for doing this that I call the rule of three. He's found that when oil prices quickly spike to a new three-year high, they can cause a damaging shock to the economy. That's because both businesses and consumers suddenly have to rapidly adjust their budgets, and often drastically cut spending. The rule of three is not a hard and fast law, but more a decent rule of thumb. It happens to describe what happened in 1979 fairly well. At the time, the only frame of reference anybody had for an oil crisis was the 1973 OPEC embargo. Nobody expected a repeat.
While oil prices are rising pretty quickly today, they're still close to where they reached during the Libyan revolution last year. They could go higher -- I'm not going to try and predict -- but at this point, even if it's painful, most Americans have an idea of how to cope with higher fuel costs. Back in 1979, it was still relatively new and frightening. Today, it's old hat.
The Vermont senator’s revolutionary zeal has met its moment.
There’s no way this man could be president, right? Just look at him: rumpled and scowling, bald pate topped by an entropic nimbus of white hair. Just listen to him: ranting, in his gravelly Brooklyn accent, about socialism. Socialism!
And yet here we are: In the biggest surprise of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, this thoroughly implausible man, Bernie Sanders, is a sensation.
He is drawing enormous crowds—11,000 in Phoenix, 8,000 in Dallas, 2,500 in Council Bluffs, Iowa—the largest turnout of any candidate from any party in the first-to-vote primary state. He has raised $15 million in mostly small donations, to Hillary Clinton’s $45 million—and unlike her, he did it without holding a single fundraiser. Shocking the political establishment, it is Sanders—not Martin O’Malley, the fresh-faced former two-term governor of Maryland; not Joe Biden, the sitting vice president—to whom discontented Democratic voters looking for an alternative to Clinton have turned.
A newly discovered artifact buried with one of Jamestown’s most prominent leaders suggests he could have been a crypto-Catholic.
After 400 years in the Virginia dirt, the box came out of the ground looking like it had been plucked from the ocean. A tiny silver brick, now encrusted with a green patina and rough as sandpaper. Buried beneath it was a human skeleton. The remains would later be identified as those of Captain Gabriel Archer, one of the most prominent leaders at Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in America. But it was the box, which appeared to be an ancient Catholic reliquary, that had archaeologists bewildered and astonished.
“One of the major surprises was the discovery of this mysterious small silver box,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation. “I have to say, we’re still trying to figure this out. You have the very strange situation of a Catholic reliquary being found with the leader of the first Protestant church in the country.”
For anyone who has ever caught some treacly adult contemporary on the radio and wondered “Who on earth likes this stuff?” while twisting the dial, a new study might have an answer. A bunch of softies, that’s who.
In the paper, published recently in the online journal PLoS One, Cambridge psychologist David Greenberg theorized that music tastes are determined in part by peoples’ tendency to fall into one of two rough personality categories: empathizers or systemizers. Empathizers are people who are very attuned to others’ emotions and mental states. Systemizers are more focused on patterns that govern the natural and physical worlds.
Over the course of multiple experiments that included 4,000 participants, listeners took personality questionnaires and then listened to and rated 50 pieces of music.
The paper of record’s inaccurate reporting on a nonexistent criminal investigation was a failure that should entail more serious consequences.
I have read The New York Times since I was a teenager as the newspaper to be trusted, the paper of record, the definitive account. But the huge embarrassment over the story claiming a criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton for her emails—leading the webpage, prominent on the front page, before being corrected in the usual, cringeworthy fashion of journalists who stonewall any alleged errors and then downplay the real ones—is a direct challenge to its fundamental credibility. And the paper’s response since the initial huge error was uncovered has not been adequate or acceptable.
This is not some minor mistake. Stories, once published, take on a life of their own. If they reinforce existing views or stereotypes, they fit perfectly into Mark Twain’s observation, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” (Or perhaps Twain never said it, in which case the ubiquity of that attribution serves to validate the point.) And a distorted and inaccurate story about a prominent political figure running for president is especially damaging and unconscionable.
The new version of Apple’s signature media software is a mess. What are people with large MP3 libraries to do?
When the developer Erik Kemp designed the first metadata system for MP3s in 1996, he provided only three options for attaching text to the music. Every audio file could be labeled with only an artist, song name, and album title.
Kemp’s system has since been augmented and improved upon, but never replaced. Which makes sense: Like the web itself, his schema was shipped, good enough,and an improvement on the vacuum which preceded it. Those three big tags, as they’re called, work well with pop and rock written between 1960 and 1995. This didn’t prevent rampant mislabeling in the early days of the web, though, as anyone who remembers Napster can tell you. His system stumbles even more, though, when it needs to capture hip hop’s tradition of guest MCs or jazz’s vibrant culture of studio musicianship.
Even when they’re adopted, the children of the wealthy grow up to be just as well-off as their parents.
Lately, it seems that every new study about social mobility further corrodes the story Americans tell themselves about meritocracy; each one provides more evidence that comfortable lives are reserved for the winners of what sociologists call the birth lottery. But, recently, there have been suggestions that the birth lottery’s outcomes can be manipulated even after the fluttering ping-pong balls of inequality have been drawn.
What appears to matter—a lot—is environment, and that’s something that can be controlled. For example, one study out of Harvard found that moving poor families into better neighborhoods greatly increased the chances that children would escape poverty when they grew up.
While it’s well documentedthat the children of the wealthy tend to grow up to be wealthy, researchers are still at work on how and why that happens. Perhaps they grow up to be rich because they genetically inherit certain skills and preferences, such as a tendency to tuck away money into savings. Or perhaps it’s mostly because wealthier parents invest more in their children’s education and help them get well-paid jobs. Is it more nature, or more nurture?
I agree: It’s why I wrote about how poorly iTunes performs for classical music listeners and, really, for anyone with a large music library.
But it’s worth spending time on iTunes’s specific design problems, which surpass those raised by managing a music library or listening to a specific genre. Toxic hellstew it may be, a new version of iTunes points at what kinds of technology are allowed to come out of Apple. Apple is the most valuable company in the world and an organization hailed for its good design. Why does iTunes fail at what it sets out to do?
An off-duty Medford, Massachusetts, cop threatened a motorist during a traffic stop. His colleagues seemed unperturbed by his behavior.
Three years ago in Medford, Massachusetts, narcotics detective Stephen LeBert calmly told the brother of a man he was arresting, “He’s selling drugs illegally. What they should do is just take him up to the railroad tracks and tell him to lay down.” He knew he was being recorded as he made the comment, as moments earlier, the footage shows him licking his finger and wiping saliva on the citizen’s lens. Medford Police Chief Leo Sacco says that he was counseled after the incident.
After watching that video, it comes as no great surprise that Detective LeBert was suspended earlier this week for another instance of misbehavior recorded by a citizen:
The footage, captured by the dashcam on a motorist’s vehicle, begins shortly after the driver got confused at a roundabout in an unfamiliar neighborhood and wound up briefly driving on the wrong side of the road (an error for which he would repeatedly apologize). At first, the motorist is terrified and starts to flee because Detective LeBert, who is driving an unmarked pickup truck and plainclothes, does not identify himself as a police officer, even as he is upset that the motorist doesn’t defer to him. “I’ll put a hole right through your fucking head,’’ LeBert says. “Pull your car over. I’ll put a hole right in your fucking head. I’ll put a hole right through your head.’’ The motorist begins to cooperate as soon as a badge is produced.
More on the F-16 and Cessna crash, and whether the collision of a military and a civilian aircraft was also a collision of cultures
Early this month an Air Force F-16, under the command of an experienced Air Force pilot, rammed into a small-civilian Cessna 150 propeller plane, not far from Charleston, South Carolina. The Air Force pilot ejected to safety; both people aboard the Cessna were killed.
The next three paragraphs are background for the pointed and interesting reader-messages I am about to quote. If you’re already up to speed with previous installments (one, two, three), you can skip ahead to the messages. They highlight an aspect of the modern military-civilian divide I had not considered before this episode.
In an original item on the crash, I noted some of the perils civilians could face when flying near designated military areas—even though this crash happened in ordinary uncontrolled airspace. That is, it occurred when neither plane was within a Military Operations Area (MOA), where civilian pilots are warned about risks from high-speed military aircraft, nor inside the controlled “Class C” airspace that surrounds Charleston’s airport. (Medium-sized commercial airports like Charleston’s typically are ringed by Class C airspace, so the controllers can sequence in the airline, cargo, civilian, military, and other traffic headed toward their runways. The very busiest airports, like LAX or JFK, are surrounded by larger zones of Class B airspace for their more complex traffic-control jobs. In case you’re wondering, Class A airspace is the realm above 18,000 feet where most jet travel occurs.)