“Gas Prices Skyrocket” booms Newsweek. “As gas prices surge, President Biden asks the F.T.C. to investigate ‘illegal conduct,’” says the headline in the Times. “Ghastly Gas Prices Haunt Consumers,” says the AAA. “More pain at the pump,” is the warning from the Hill newspaper in the face of a crude export ban Mr. Biden is eyeing. On the Coast, gas at one pump bounced above seven one-dollar Federal Reserve Notes.
The thing to keep in mind, though, is that the value of gasoline has been falling. That is, the amount of gasoline that one can purchase for an ounce of gold has been rising — dramatically, if one looks at the long haul and in terms of the kind of money that the Federal Reserve can’t just print or conjure on a computer keypad. We checked and came up with startling results, beginning with the decade that ended in 1966.
In that span, on average, an ounce of gold would fetch 112.9 gallons of gasoline. Wow, one might exclaim, gas was cheap back then. Had to be, with those gas-guzzling cars. By 1971, though, something had begun to happen. It seems that the value of gasoline had fallen, so that an ounce of gold — an essentially inert monetary metal created at the Big Bang — would fetch 113.33 gallons of the gold.
The year 1971 was the last of the post-World War II monetary system known as Bretton Woods. It had defined the dollar as a weight of gold — 35 to the ounce. Foreign governments holding dollars could redeem them for bullion at that fixed rate. Then President Nixon refused to make the exchange, Congress removed from our statutes any definition of the dollar in terms of the classical objective metallic value.
So began the age of fiat money, the kind in your wallet. The price of gas in fiat money began soaring. The value of gas — marked in gold — started to plunge. In 2000, one could get 169.25 gallons of gasoline for an ounce of the yellow metal. And, hey, this was toward the end of the Reagan-Clinton generation, when the value of the dollar (measured against both gold and against other countries’ paper money) was rising.
Feature what happened next. The value of the dollar started to go down again, particularly after we went into the Global War on Terror while trying to maintain butter with our guns. Yet gasoline fell further. There were fluctuations, of course. By October 2013, though, an ounce of gold would purchase 324.54 gallons of gasoline. By last month, the number of gallons of gas one could get for an ounce of gold was a staggering 416.
Now we didn’t just fall off this turnip truck. In 2011, we issued an editorial called “The Silver Bullet.” That was after President Obama declared: “Now, whenever gas prices shoot up, like clockwork, you see politicians racing to the cameras, waving three-point plans for two dollar gas. You see people trying to grab headlines or score a few points. The truth is, there’s no silver bullet that can bring down gas prices right away.”
Yet it turned out, we wrote back in 2011, that if we were to price gasoline in ounces of silver, we would discover that it had been falling in value. “That is,” we wrote at the time, “a gallon of gasoline on the day President Obama was sworn in was worth about a sixth of an ounce of silver.” And by 2011, “the value of the same gallon of gasoline” had “fallen to less than a 10th of an ounce of silver.”
It’s not, we wrote back then, that the gasoline has been going up in value. It’s that the dollars being used to pay for the gas had collapsed in value. So it is today, when no monetary authority is prepared to tighten money and risk a recession to keep prices stable. Gold might be signaling it’s time to raise interest rates and mind inflation. Yet this is the age of fiat money, when politicians are blind to what price signals are saying.