Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program


While prices at the pump are soaring, politicians and pundits are pretending the past two years didn't happen.

A woman named Gwen McCrae was the first to release an official recording of a song that would become a touchstone country ballad for countless big-time artists. Popularized by Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, and perhaps most memorably by the pop band Pet Shop Boys, the song consists mostly of a simple, elegant refrain: “You are always on my mind.”

On that note, gas prices. Unless you’re a hermit or a metrosexual, you may have opted for just a half tank this past week, as the bill for a full tank of gasoline at a median price of $4.33 per gallon—the highest average ever recorded in the United States, per AAA Gas Prices—was just too painful. Or maybe you filled it all the way in the morning, suspecting the same amount of gas would cost more by the time you drove home from work in the evening. Impelled by a combination of record inflation, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and now President Biden’s ban on Russian oil imports, prices at the pump are only expected to increase in the near future.

At the White House, the crisis has been answered with some good old-fashioned gaslighting. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg declared this week that Americans who buy an electric vehicle “never have to worry about gas prices again.” This, of course, was followed by more gaslighting, after memes poking fun at the idea that $50,000 electric vehicles were a solution for $100 fill-ups took off, and the fact-check media took it upon itself to explain that the Biden administration was not driving the current gas prices in order to convince Americans to drive electric. Buttigieg, meanwhile, helpfully tweeted a link to electric vehicles priced as low as $27,000. Thanks, Mayor Pete.

Out in California, where the statewide average for a gallon of gas is $5.72, locals who pay $6 or more are becoming internet one-hit-wonders by turning their financial pain into humor. The Los Angeles Times, however, says these prices aren’t actually a record. “When accounting for inflation…today’s prices are still about 20 [percent] below the 2008 peak on the national level and 7 [percent] below the California record that year.” In today’s prices, the Times explains, the 2008 record would be $5.26. That’s helpful.

In addition to driving up prices, inflation is also driving politics and poverty. Republicans are having a heyday—you’d almost think they enjoyed the surging gas prices, for all the free potshots at Biden it has given them. This is the last nail in Biden’s coffin and a guarantor of a red wave come November—or so they are saying. If that’s true, and if they really do care about gas prices, they’ll need to do more with their power than cut taxes. Good luck to the rest of us. Meanwhile, the New York Times has correctly identified the regressive impact of high gas prices as a de facto tax on the poor, and are beginning to use the words “stagflation” and “recession” in relation to the current economic crisis. One begins to think the parties have switched sides. Or perhaps they have finally converged: neither is talking much sense.

Others have used this moment to take a swing at reshoring, as David Frum did in a recent tweet: “President Biden needs to speak plainly to Americans about the food/fuel inflation that Putin’s war imposes on the world. Prepare the country. No more of the glib ‘buy American’ mental junk food in the State of the Union address. Real talk about real costs.” We, as citizens of the world, are paying more because Russia Man Bad.

It might be amusing if the reminder weren’t so painful: Our global interdependence got us into this situation in the first place. The pandemic showed us that clearly, and the crisis in Ukraine is showing us again. We can’t blame Putin for all our problems, as though two years of record congressional spending, a shut-down economy, and a global supply-chain backlog didn’t precede his invasion of Ukraine. Biden doesn’t need to give us real talk about real costs because we’re already feeling them, and we will continue to feel them as long as our economy is structured on a Cold War-era narrative of world order that has long been disconnected from reality. Forget buying American—how about drilling American? Manufacturing American? Hiring American? There’s no easy exit plan now that we are in the ditch, but better to start climbing out than to dig ourselves in deeper.

In all this, middle- and working-class Americans continue to be the worst hit. We’re already beginning to feel it in other places, too, like the cost of shipping. While gas prices are always on our minds, a war in Ukraine will not be able to compete for attention forever. At some point, you have to remove the beam in your own eye. Our leaders seem to prefer lighting a match.