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Blame Putin

The average price
of gasoline has jumped over $1 since Vladimir Putin moved his army to the border of Ukraine. One dollar. And change. Nationally, the average price of regular gasoline is now $4.30 a gallon.

Kid stuff. In California, we pay much more. The Golden State charges gold for gasoline. Good luck getting change for your hundred- dollar bill. It won’t be enough to buy a sandwich.

But it’s hard to blame Putin for the ridiculous price of a sandwich (and you wanted fries and a drink,andchange? Gasoline is another matter. To hear the president, it’s all Putin’s fault.

Fine with me. I’m happy to heap blame on the most hated man in the world.

But is it really all his fault? Or, more important, perhaps, will he be the only one to get blame?

For years, decades, we’ve been talking about our dangerous dependence on foreign oil. But mostly, that was code for our dependence on Muslim countries full of people who hate us.

Do we really depend so heavily on Russian oil that the price of gas should go up 25% in two weeks?

The short answer is no, which is why the administration is going to have to buckle down and come up with the longer answer.

To put it simply: What is wrong with the economy (inflation), and what are they planning to do about it, other than sanction

the Russians (which will raise the price of things we do import, like fertilizer) and raise interest rates?

President Joe Biden is out there talking about how his infrastructure program is going to be building America back bigger and stronger. That all sounds fine, at least until lunch, when it’s time for that sandwich that seems to cost twice what it used to.

Which is the problem with inflation as a political issue. Unlike, say, unemployment, inflation hits everyone, and it hits all day, every day. Kids feel it with their allowances, seniors with their fixed incomes, and everyone in between when they stop for coffee and feel foolish waiting for change.

And raising interest rates, the obvious solution, is intended to slow our spending, which is not
a popular thing to do.

We live in a global economy, in which the lockdowns in China because of omicron and the war in Europe because of Putin’s madness affect what’s available on Main Street and what it costs. The fact that these global forces are, in many respects, beyond the control of both Biden and the Fed chair doesn’t mean they won’t be blamed for their impact. Jay Powell isn’t up for election in November; Biden’s party is.

We used to call it the “misery index” — what happens when you combine inflation, interest rates and unemployment. The higher the number, the worse the result. Improvements in the stock market don’t figure in, not directly. The misery index was a political measure, a shorthand for the risk of incumbency, which right now is as high as it’s been since the Jimmy Carter days, when we coined the term.

Most of the time, incumbents get reelected; that is the rule. But it is also the rule that the party in power tends to lose in the midterms, even if there isn’t a war and record inflation. “Blame Putin” may work for a while, but it won’t work forever. The president can look to his right and look
to his left, but ultimately, it’s the face in the mirror and the party on the ballot who people will blame.

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