The unrest in the Middle East has shaken energy markets around the world. Consumers are bracing for a sharp rise in already sky-high gas prices. But they’d be wrong to worry too much. That’s because it’s not the supply of oil that determines the price of gasoline, but rather a simple mathematical formula unrelated to crude. All you have to do is take the length (in years) of the incumbent administration, and divide it by the number of “oil men” in power. Express your answer in terms of dollars per gallon.
Still not getting it? Just ask Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who unveiled this algebraic enigma on the Senate floor on July 15, 2008. As Senator Boxer thundered to her colleagues that summer evening, pointing to her giant chart, “8 years, divided by 2 Oil Men in the White House, equals $4 per gallon!” [Watch the whole performance here]
Nowadays, most Senate speeches are poorly delivered and easily forgotten. Few if any gain the luster of future relevance (Can anyone remember anything useful from a Senator Obama speech? Or any Senate speech in the last 40 years, for that matter?). But now, gas is climbing back to $4 a gallon (in a recession!), and America wants answers. And building on the wisdom of Pythagoras and Euclid, the Boxer Formula emerges from the fog of history to give us those much-needed answers.
But any good student of mathematics knows that a theorem is only as good as its proof, and the Boxer Formula is no exception. So how accurate is it?
We can assume that Sen. Boxer’s main point was that the more years President Bush and Vice President Cheney (the two oil men) were in office, the higher prices would go. So, for instance, 16 years of dual oil men reign would yield $8 gas (16 / 2), and so on. Of course, the problem is that according to the equation, it turns out that once you fix the term of years at the maximum of eight (thanks to the 22nd Amendment), the more oil men there are in power, the cheaper gas gets. So if we had 8 years of rule divided by an 8-man oligarchy of Bush, Cheney, the Koch brothers, T. Boone Pickens, 2 Saudi Arabian princes, and an exiled Muammar al-Gaddafi, gas would be a buck a gallon (8 / 8). In today’s wretched economy, some people would probably take that deal.
On the flip side — and this is where it gets strange — it turns out that the FEWER oil men sent to infest 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, the higher prices get. So if we only had President Bush for 8 years (without Cheney), according to Barbara Boxer gas would have reached a staggeringly European 8 bucks a gallon (8 / 1). Even worse, keeping everything else constant, propping up just one half of an oil man in the White House yields $16 gas (8 / 0.5). If a tenth of an oil man ruled us (a disembodied arm, perhaps?), we’d pay $80 a gallon, or close to $1,000 to fill up the tank! Eliminating oil men entirely brings prices to infinity, regardless of the duration in office. Forget about the size of the national debt. This is much scarier.
So what can we conclude? While oil prices are pretty high right now, they are not infinity. That could only mean that oil men have infiltrated the Obama administration, and their presence is lowering prices. Since the average national price of a gallon of gasoline today is about $3.14, we can work the formula backwards, solving for the precise amount of oil men who have snuck into the White House, which turns out to be 0.65 (2 years of Obama / $3.1). Maybe BP CEO Bob Dudley’s torso is hiding under Secretary of the Interior Salazar’s gigantic cowboy hat. Or maybe on January 20, 2009, just before he left office, Dick Cheney hid his aorta and spleen somewhere in the East Wing. The good news is that inviting a few more oil men into this shadowy clique would lower prices immediately.
Or maybe Senator Boxer doesn’t believe in her own formula anymore. Maybe she was wrong to tie the high gas prices of that hot summer to the nefarious schemes of the Bush administration, now that President Obama faces the same vexing problem of higher crude prices. If Boxer’s mistake was unwitting, then the people of California have to ask themselves why they just reelected a United States senator incapable of performing middle school algebra. If it was deliberate, then Californians, and all Americans, need to pay closer attention to the cynical political theater that goes on in the Senate chamber.
Ariel Wolf is a JD candidate at the Georgetown University Law Center. He served as a foreign policy advisor in the United States Senate from 2005-2010.