When I rejoiced yesterday to spot a gas station selling regular for just $2.53 a gallon, I had to remind myself how elastic are the standards by which we judge the value of just about everything. It's hard to sort out which emotion dominates: my chagrin at paying $1 a gallon more than I was paying a couple of years ago, or my delight at paying 50 cents less than I was two months ago.
The American media have had a field day since late last summer when a pair of costly hurricanes jacked up the price of fuel in a fairly abrupt manner. But the main effect of their lopsided reporting has been to sponsor a gigantic pity-party, encouraging Americans to feel sorry for themselves because the robber barons of the energy industry have become so oppressive. What the media have done very poorly is to help those same consumers measure such costs thoughtfully both against historical prices and against what others throughout the world are paying right now for the same energy.
By either of those standards, of course, we're still getting a pretty good bargain. Let's say it plainly: Historically, even at $3 a gallon, we're paying very little more for a gallon of gas-adjusted for inflation-than we were paying half a century ago. And at $3, we're also paying roughly half what other nations around the world pay for that same gallon.
But it isn't just with their reporting about prices at the gas station that the media are failing their customers-or tilting the view of reality. As I've reported twice in this space before, the mainstream media have provided the public with a shamefully one-dimensional and non-instructive account when reporting American deaths in the war in Iraq.
Specifically, the networks and big newspapers drone on, week after week, telling us-with little or no context-that two more Americans died in a roadside bombing yesterday in Baghdad. And what they are saying is literally true, just as it is true when they report that gas just hit $3 a gallon. Yet without context, it is an almost meaningless report.
If you haven't done so before, will you take three minutes to comprehend the table on this page? It will confirm for you the report that two Americans died in Iraq yesterday, that two more died the day before yesterday, and two more on average on each and every one of the 1,200 days we've been in the country that used to be called Babylon. Yes, it does seem to go on and on.
And it seems sufficient at times to prompt you to cry, with increasing numbers of your countrymen, "Enough!" But before you join that chorus, will you study the rest of the table? Will you note that in terms of total lives lost, the current war remains among the least costly of all American conflicts? And will you note especially the column called "Deaths per day," where the disparities can be described only as dramatic?
Nor do I mean to minimize the cost involved with even a single death, be it American, Iraqi peace-lover, or even an Iraqi terrorizer. War is expensive, and war is wasteful. But so, very often, are the alternatives.
It is not overly crass to think of yourself as a comparison shopper. Which means, quite simply, that every time you hear the price of something expressed in terms that seem a little high, you are right to respond by asking: "Compared to what?"
The discussion might be about something like a gallon of gas. Or it might be about freedom itself.