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I Win My Long-Run Gas Price Bet

Summary:
In July of 2008, the average U.S. price of regular gasoline was .062.  As usual, global hysteria followed.  And as usual, I was unperturbed.  So unperturbed, in fact, that I made the following bet with Tyler Cowen and David Balan:I will bet 0, even odds, that the U.S. price of gas (including taxes) in the first week of January, 2018 will be .00 or less in 2008 dollars.A subsequent clarification specified that the bet was on the price of regular gasoline.Today, the January CPI arrived, allowing us to finally resolve this ten-year bet.  In 2008, the US CPI stood at 215.3.  In the third quarter of 2017, it hit 244.7.  Since then, there has been further inflation of 0.3%, bringing us to 245.3, for a

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In July of 2008, the average U.S. price of regular gasoline was $4.062.  As usual, global hysteria followed.  And as usual, I was unperturbed.  So unperturbed, in fact, that I made the following bet with Tyler Cowen and David Balan:
I will bet $100, even odds, that the U.S. price of gas (including taxes) in the first week of January, 2018 will be $3.00 or less in 2008 dollars.
A subsequent clarification specified that the bet was on the price of regular gasoline.

Today, the January CPI arrived, allowing us to finally resolve this ten-year bet.  In 2008, the US CPI stood at 215.3.  In the third quarter of 2017, it hit 244.7.  Since then, there has been further inflation of 0.3%, bringing us to 245.3, for a grand total of 13.9% inflation during this period.  For me to win, then, the average price of regular gasoline in January 2017 must be less than $3.417.

So where are we now?  In January of 2018, the average price was a mere $2.555.  I have therefore won this bet by a margin of over 25%.  (Indeed, even if we count all gasoline, the average price is only $2.671).  I would have prevailed if there'd been 0% inflation - or as much as 14% cumulative deflation.

Now what was this bet really about?  Back in 2008, Tyler argued that there was a deep intellectual error in the work of Julian Simon:

It's amazing how much, on this issue, some people resort to what can only be called technical analysis -- inferring future price movements from past trends -- when they would scoff at that approach in almost any other context.
Why was Tyler so dismissive?  As far as I can understand, he thinks that basic arbitrage theory implies that there can't be predictable price patterns.  My view, in contrast, is that there are many conditions that undermine the power of arbitrage.  So if we see a 150-year price pattern, it's perfectly reasonable to expect it to continue. 

And what is that pattern for gasoline?  For as long as we've had data, gas prices have shown frequent spikes, followed by gradual declines back to long-run trend.  So when prices spiked to over $4.00, I expected the past to repeat itself.  And repeat itself it did.

I expect that Tyler will insist that I just got lucky.  And if I lost roughly half my bets, that would be a wise reaction.  However, this latest victory brings my betting record to 17 wins and 0 losses.  Yes, pride goeth before the fall.  There's at least one outstanding bet that I now expect to lose.  Still, the only reasonable explanation for my 17-and-0 record is that my judgment is exceptionally good.  As I've said before:

[T]wo key practices account for most of my success.

1. I take the "outside view."  When predicting, I start with long-run averages, and presume the "latest news" is distracting trivia.  For example, when I made my unemployment bet with Tyler, I looked at all the unemployment data for 1948 to the present, and assumed the future would resemble the past.  As usual, it did.

2. I spurn hyperbole.  Human beings adore superlatives, but superlatives rarely apply to the real world.  So when I notice someone treating hyperbolic poetry as literal truth, I rush to wager.  For example, when John Podhoretz asserted that the Iran nuclear deal "effectively ensures that it will be a nuclear state with ballistic missiles in 10 years," I smelled hyperbole, and tried in vain to entice him put some money on it.

In slogan form: I owe my track record to numeracy and normalcy.  Step back, calm down, look at the numbers, and target thinkers who say, "This time it's different."

Last point: As always, my opponents have my respect - and deserve yours.  They stuck out their necks and made clear claims.  If every pundit would do the same, this would be a far better - and far quieter - world.


Bryan Caplan
Bryan Caplan is Professor of Economics at George Mason University and Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center. He has published in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the American Economic Review, the Economic Journal, the Journal of Law and Economics, and Intelligence, and has appeared on 20/20, FoxNews, and C-SPAN. Bryan Caplan blogs on EconLog.

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