Every guy remembers the day he got his driver’s license.  Pop, a little warily but proudly, handed him the keys to the family car, and the road was open to drive anywhere in the 48 continental United States.  Of course, most guys were just happy to take a girl on a date without Pop chauffeuring.

A problem now is the cost of gasoline.  When I first started driving on my 16th birthday in 1971 in Michigan, gas cost 31¢ per gallon.  I could afford it by mowing neighbors’ lawns and working as a library page.

But I just paid $4.15 per gallon in Orange County.  At that rate it seems like an American rite of passage is over.  Guys won’t be able to afford gas for dates.  No one will get married and have kids.  The birthrate will drop to zero.  Only Prius-hugging environmentalists will be happy, as the human race extinguishes itself.

Fortunately, it’s not that simple.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online Consumer Price Index Inflation calculator, 31¢ in 1971 equals $1.71 today.  But my father’s 1967 Oldsmobile that I drove back in 1971 got about 12 miles per gallon on the highway.  GM shut down Oldsmobile in 2004.  But an equivalent GM car today, the 2011 Buick Lucerne, gets 27 miles per gallon on the highway—2.25 times as much.

I’ll omit the math.  But if we account for inflation, better gas mileage, and higher California gas taxes, the number comes pretty close to the $4.15 I just paid.

Since the end of World War II, the price of oil has averaged 15 barrels per ounce of gold.  Occasionally, as during the 2008 oil price spike, the ratio goes off kilter because of war or political instability—but never for long (at least so far).  As I write in mid-May, the price of gold is $1,485 per ounce, and oil is $99 per barrel.  That makes the ratio exactly 15/1.  Check the numbers when you read this article, and the ratio likely will be close to that.

The reason is that the oil industry is the world’s largest, and one of its most mature.  The use and price of oil also interact with other fossil fuels, especially natural gas, providing even more stability.  Even the economic booms of recent years in China and India have not changed the ratio.

Gas is refined from oil.  So gas prices obviously reflect oil prices, plus taxes and temporary instabilities such as explosions at refineries.

However you look at it, you still can drive from Bangor, Maine, to Los Angeles, California—with a stop at Chronicles in Rockford, Illinois—for about $500 in gas if you drive in comfort in a Lucerne.  Less if you squeeze into an economy car.

Despite that, when oil spiked above $112 per barrel in May, President Obama ordered Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate price “spiking” by oil speculators.  And when in mid-May gas prices in Washington, D.C., jumped 25¢ in a single day, city Attorney General Irv Nathan began an antitrust investigation of a local oil company, Capitol Petroleum Group.  Holder and Nathan would be better off investigating the Federal Reserve Board, whose policy of “Quantitative Easing”—a euphemism for inflation—is the real cause of the rising oil and gas prices.

Let’s look at two more factors.  Both the Republican and Democratic national platforms in 2008 called for oil “independence” for the United States.  Yet according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in February 2011 the top nations from which America imported oil were Canada (2.193 million barrels per day), a close ally; Saudi Arabia (1.114 million), joined at the hip with the Anglo-American oil industry since World War II; Mexico (998,000), a mostly friendly neighbor, despite some problems; Nigeria (948,000), a friendly country; Venezuela (878,000), run by the socialist Hugo Chavez, who’s really just a pest.

Some geologists warn of “peak oil” striking in the near future.  But every time the oil wells are supposed to dry up, new wells are found, or new technologies allow deeper tapping of existing wells.  It’s basic economics that the future scarcity of something can be foretold by the current price.  As we have seen, judged against gold, the price of oil has remained remarkably steady now for 66 years.

So the oil and gas price disruptions really are political and monetary in nature.  Now is still a great time, as beauteous Dinah Shore crooned in the 1950’s, to “See the USA in your Chevrolet.”