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JEFF JACOBY

Barking about gas

WHAT IS IT about the price of gasoline that turns seemingly normal politicians into barking economic demagogues?

When Jill puts her house on the market for $450,000 -- triple what she paid 10 years ago, but the going price in her neighborhood today -- the politicos understand that the 200 percent markup is the result of supply and demand in the real estate market. Senators don't call press conferences to denounce Jill as a profiteer. Attorneys general don't threaten to prosecute her. Governors don't compare her to looters.

But when Joe's service station ups the price of gasoline by $1 a gallon, the political world freaks out. Never mind that a Category 4 hurricane has devastated oil production throughout the Gulf Coast, depleting the nation's refining capacity by 2 million barrels a day and driving up the price Joe's wholesaler is now charging him. For some reason, politicians forget everything they learned in Economics 101 and rush to savage Joe for ''gouging" his customers.

Republican Governor Sonny Perdue of Georgia, for example, issues an order imposing penalties on gasoline dealers who charge more than he thinks they should. ''I do not believe there is an energy emergency in this state," he announces -- as if Georgia is magically shielded from the forces that drive gasoline prices in the other 49 states.

In Massachusetts, Governor Mitt Romney -- a Harvard MBA who didn't make a fortune in venture capital by demagoguing markets -- takes to the microphones to denounce the alleged gouging as ''white collar looting" and urges motorists to turn in offenders through a state hotline. Missouri's GOP governor, Matt Blunt, excoriates gasoline ''profiteering" as ''both unconscionable and illegal." Even President Bush gets into the act, demanding ''zero tolerance" of lawbreakers -- a category into which he lumps looters, insurance swindlers, and poor beleaguered Joe, ''price gouging at the gasoline pump."

Then there are Democrats like Governor Richard Codey of New Jersey, who vows to inflict ''maximum penalties" on overcharging gas stations, which he estimates at one of every four in his state. Senators Maria Cantwell of Washington and Carl Levin of Michigan call for something even more unwise -- a revival of gasoline price controls, like those Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter embraced 30 years ago.

But artificial price caps will work no better now than they did in the 1970s. They won't get petroleum refined faster. They won't reduce motorists' demand for gasoline. All they will create is shortages -- the one thing price controls always bring in their wake.

The only rational and efficient way to allocate a scarce commodity is through price. That is because the more you value something, the more you are generally willing to pay for it. By charging what the market will bear -- for gasoline or anything else -- vendors channel their product to the customers who value it the most. A mandatory cap on the price of gas may seem like kindness to the poor, but all it can do is raise demands that can't be met. The result is ''Sold Out" signs on Joe's pumps, or gasoline lines stretching around the block.

''If there's not enough fuel and you put a cap on," former President Bill Clinton said recently on CNN, ''then what you might do is just drop the supply even quicker, imposing greater hardship on people." He gets it. Why don't the others?

Painful as they are, price spikes are invaluable -- especially after a disaster, when critical goods and services are at a premium. At $3 or $4 a gallon, post-Katrina gasoline prices are transmitting two urgent messages. To consumers they say: ''Conserve! Buy only as much as you really need, and look for ways to use even less." To the energy industry they say: ''Produce! Get those refineries back online and supply more gasoline ASAP." Aren't those exactly the behaviors we want to encourage?

But the power of market pricing to affect behavior is unwelcome to those who think useful things don't happen unless the government tells them to happen. In The New York Times last week, Senator Levin dismissed the idea that higher prices will induce consumers to use less gasoline. ''By that logic," he snorted, ''you could raise prices to $10 a gallon and you make sure that people walk."

In the real world, though, consumers do make choices based on price, as the large photo accompanying the Times story illustrated nicely. It showed a woman turning away from gasoline pumps charging $5.88 a gallon. The caption read: ''The price of gas at a station in Stockbridge, Ga., last week was too high for one customer, who returned to her car without buying."

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com.

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