Actress and former Miss America Vanessa Williams reminisces on NPR about the long car trips her family used to take “when gas was like 30 cents a gallon, and my parents would complain that it was going up to 35 cents.” No wonder families could take car trips then.
But wait a minute. Williams was born in 1963. So let’s say she’s remembering family trips from about 1970-75. This chart from the Department of Energy does show that retail gasoline prices were around 35 cents a gallon at the beginning of that period, going above 50 cents by 1975. But adjusted for inflation, that was more like $1.50 in 2000 dollars.
And as Jerry Taylor and Peter Van Doren show (click on the chart to enlarge), the price then was about $3.00 adjusted for inflation and changes in disposable per capita income — just about what it is now. So Williams’s memory was correct — gas was about 35 cents when her family went on trips. But the implication that those were the good old days of cheap gas isn’t quite right. In terms of the family budget, gas costs about the same now as it did then.
Julian Simon used to write about how people have been deploring the lost ”good old days” since ancient times. Sometimes he quoted the columnist and Algonquin Round Table regular Franklin Pierce Adams: “Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory.”