Americans were recently asked whether they believed that President Obama could do much to lower gas prices. The answer was highly correlated with political party affiliation: 65% of Republicans said “yes,” while only33% of Democrats said the same.
In fact, the President has very little control over the price of gas. According to the Washington Post:
Today’s oil prices are the product of years and decades of exploration, automobile design and ingrained consumer habits combined with political events in places such as Sudan and Libya, anxiety about possible conflict with Iran, and the energy aftershocks of last year’s earthquake in Japan.
An expert calls the idea that a President can substantially influence the oil market “preposterous.”
So, does this mean that Democrats are smarter about econo-geo-politics?
Nope. It just means a Democrat is in the White House. The pollsters, WP/ABC News, asked the same question in 2006, during the Bush Administration. That year 73% of Democrats gave President Bush some of the blame for gas prices; only 47% of Republicans did.
(Red = answered “yes” in 2006; Blue = answered “yes” in 2012)
Such switches, argues political scientist Brendan Nyhan, are typical. NPRreports: “On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard.” Nyhan believes that the phenomenon might be related to “cognitive dissonance,” a sense of unease that comes from holding two incompatible beliefs at once. If you like the President, in other words, it might be hard for you to also think that he could do something about gas prices, but isn’t.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Ted_Howard — May 17, 2012
This does not surprise me. Let's remember information acquisition is a costly endeavor. In any significant election, any given person's vote is irrelevant (meaning not decisive) and the probability of your vote being decisive is basically zero. This gives very little incentive to acquire knowledge and good information. That's why these type of polls usually exhibit irrationality. It's probably an example of cognitive dissonance, but I think it says more about the role of incentives. When you have no incentive to learn or educate yourself, then you fall back on embedded systematic biases.
Although, I would point out the poll is not clear cut. It's quite possible that invading Iraq had a non-trivial impact on oil prices (in fact, Joe Stiglitz wrote a book about the cost of the Iraq War that partially used this argument - though I have not read the book). Unfortunately, you can't use statistical models to forecast the price of oil since, consistent with the efficient market hypothesis, real oil prices follow a random walk without drift. However, it's worth realizing that the futures markets suggested that traders were expecting a much lower price of oil prior to the Iraq War. It's not definitive, but it's suggestive that the Bush administrations foreign policy had a (perhaps substantial) impact on oil prices. In this way, it wouldn't have been completely unreasonable for anyone to claim Bush could reduce gas prices - by following a different foreign policy.
Also, the article is wrong on the economics of this. Today's oil prices are not just a product of years of outcomes, accept in-so-far as they form expectations. Intertemporal arbitrage implies the real price of oil should be equal to the expected future price, discounted at the rate of time preference, subject to certain frictions (e.g. storage costs). Usually Republican pundits are trying to make a kind of expectational argument based on arbitrage concerning drilling and pipelines. They are technically correct that expanding drilling and pipelines to increase future supply would lower the spot price of oil through arbitrage effects, but my understanding is the price change would be pretty small since the expected increase in supply isn't very large from these endeavors.
ARE OUR POLITICS MORE CONSISTENT THAN OUR OPINIONS? « Welcome to the Doctor's Office — May 17, 2012
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Elena — May 17, 2012
Throughout Europe at least, a significant percentage of the price of gas (40% to 60%) is indeed taxes that are fixed by the government. See this link for maps and numbers.
Rishi — May 17, 2012
People are hypocrites, in other news the sky is blue.
Tommy Timefishblue — May 17, 2012
Obama can't do anything to affect gas prices, but political events in Libya can. Obama can't do anything to affect gas prices, but automobile design can. Obama can't do anything to affect gas prices, but consumer habits can.
Has Obama never affected political events in Libya? Did he have nothing to do with the auto industry bailout? Does he have nothing to do with the EPA? Can nothing he do affect the economy, which affects consumer habits?
I mean, of course Obama alone isn't doing these things, and probably has barely any actual influence in anything, but if we're going to pretend that some Great Man is leading everyone to do this and that...
edel — May 21, 2012
The idea of the comparison is good but flawed. Many people, especially democrats, blamed President Bush for the oil prices because of the unjustifiable initiated war in Iraq, a global mayor oil exporter.
There is not doubt that without that war oil would have been much cheaper, even more if the harsh sanctions where lifted (they should have been since Iraq indeed had no WMD).
President Obama did support a war in Libya (a gas producer) but with little weight in the oil market. Hardly today’s prices are justified by it.
So, while I believe the premises of this study regarding inconsistencies in believe to be true, I find this example an imperfect one to reflect it.
Finally, Presidents have little input on oil prices, true; but inducing wars (or taxation) that affect heavily the supply or the demand are indeed exceptions.
Joshie C — May 22, 2012
Bad question. "Reasonably can do" has much too broad a meaning to be useful. There's reasonable in the sense of: what is allowed according to constitutional limits (which changes based on how much one agrees with administrative doctrines like unitary executive, etc.) There's reasonable in the sense of: what is plausible in playing the game of politics (which changes based on who controls which parts of government and how good the president can harness party discipline.) There's reasonable in the sense of: what can be expected from *this* president's ability to reason, or what we can expect them to attempt based on the idea of what they can get away with (which changes with your opinion of how principled and intelligent the person in office is.)
If you imagine several different segments of the population as groups that will default to one interpretation of "reasonably can do," it's easy to imagine the results changing significantly just based on the mix of individuals from the different segments sampled each time, without any knee-jerk intellectual dishonesty/team-playerism