Post-It Notes and Lazy Causation

Everyone has an opinion on gas prices. It’s one of those subjects that, much like the weather, can act as a vehicle for fueling sentiments about non or flimsily related subjects. Sometimes it’s politicians who take advantage of these types of things, such as my congressional representative and this infographic from the Repulican Study Committee and his comment on Facebook:

Since President Obama took office, gas prices have nearly doubled and domestic oil production has decreased in the Gulf and on federal lands. With gas nearing $4 per gallon, how will this affect your family budget or business?

Of course, nothing the President has done is evidence of any direct causation for the recent upswing in the price we pay at the pump. Often I hear explanations of causal relationships between energy policies and gas prices that require several, several, degrees of connection to have any sort of validity. President (anybody) didn’t implement my preferred policy, which affected factor A…grumble…factor F…mumble mumble factor Q…and now gas is $3.67 a gallon! See!

But at least that picture represents an attempt to establish some type of connection, however tenuous. This next picture, though, is about as lazy as one can get with this subject:

This showed up on my Facebook feed, part of a “The extent of my knowledge and commentary on current events is through mass-shared media” phenomena that is sometime annoying. Anyway, much like my Congressman we see this connection between gas prices in January of ’08 compared to gas prices in February of ’12 and voila – lazy causation without context. It’s as if any two disparate subjects compared over time could be used to confirm any preexisting bias.

The truth is, there was this little thing called the greatest economic implosion since the Great Depression that happened in ’08 that both Mr./Mrs. Post-It and my Congressman omit from comparing gas prices from then until now. Which is to say gas prices in January 2008 were the result of a global economic collapse, not because that is how much gas prices should be now if President Obama was not in office. What was the peak in average gas prices right before the recession? $4.08 in June of ’08. Here, perhaps a chart will help:

That third great big grey bar is the recession. Obama took office right around the low point of the blue line in the grey bar. To argue as if the low point in gas prices was somehow a “pre-Obama norm” erases a medium-term trend of rising prices starting in 2003. This is just silly, people. There are lots of things you can dislike the President for that are more well-grounded in reality.


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