How can gasoline prices go up and jump around the way they do? And how come no one ever sees anyone change those prices on the gasoline station signs?

Because wee people otherwise known as elves live inside of those signs, and when they are out of sorts they stick crooked numbers up on the signs. They have been very cranky lately.

Once you know about the wee people, you know why sometimes all the posted prices jump up ten cents in unison between the time you go into Starbucks and the time you come out with your latte. You also know why sometimes you can’t find two gas stations charging the same price. The wee people’s cell phones have gone on the fritz.

Prices will come down as soon as somebody catches those little SOBs and shakes some sense into them. Evict these tiny folks from their homes inside the gas station signs and I promise you 98 cents a gallon inside of two months.

If this view of the runup in gas prices strikes you as a little eccentric, it’s totally sane compared to what’s coming out of Washington. President Bush says he’s ordering the Federal Trade Commission, a moribund appendage left over from the Theodore Roosevelt Administration, to look into price-gouging.

A buyer’s price gouge is a seller’s legitimate profit. When is a gouge a gouge–which is bad, unethical and politically devastating–and when is a gouge nothing other than the price fluctuations resulting from supply and demand, which is very, very good, ethical and politically praiseworthy?

In Congress they cannot decide if they want to slap on new taxes or take off old ones. Some members are talking up the idea of suspending the federal gasoline tax. That would drop the price of gasoline 18 cents and encourage more driving and more fuel use. Other members of Congress are demanding we press forward on “energy independence,” which translates into importing less oil from Arab countries and South American socialists.

One of the goofiest ideas is the Republican proposal to give every family in America a “gas-tax holiday,” in the form of a $100 “rebate.” That’s about two refills at today’s prices and, after that, what?

Yet others are screaming for a “windfall” profit tax. When the wind blows ripe apples off the tree, that’s a windfall. But what is a windfall profit? When does legit profit (good) turn into windfall profit (bad)? Is 8 percent profit OK? How about 12 percent? 22 percent? How do we know? Who’s got the formula for deciding, or is this just a smell test decided by how many angry e-mails are coming in from the voters?

If the idea is to lower the price of gasoline by increasing supply–opening new fields and building new refineries–does it make sense to hit the oil companies with new taxes or to take away their old tax loopholes, which, considering the hundreds of millions they have invested in political contributions, lobbying and outright bribes, they believe are rightfully theirs? Which way are we going? Do we lower prices by lowering taxes or by confiscating profits or by increasing supplies? Which is it, fellas?

The first two methods clearly will not work. The third, increasing supplies, may work–if it can be done. Right now, geologists are saying that the earth is in the process of being pumped dry, that there is little more oil and certainly no more cheap, easy-to-get-at oil. At least twice before in the twentieth century it was believed that the oil wells of the world were close to exhaustion when huge new fields were discovered and exploited. It might happen again or it might not. Nobody really knows.

President Bush and politicians from both parties will tell you that “research” is riding to the rescue. In no time at all the laboratory lads and lassies will have invented something called “Fuel-Lo,” a gasoline substitute made from common dirt and manufactured for 3 cents a barrel. As a bonus Fuel-Lo, when topically applied, will reduce malignant tumors.

Occasionally, a public figure will utter the word “conservation,” not that anybody pays attention. There are only two methods of tamping down gasoline prices in the short run, one of which is conservation. That involves measures such as imposing a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit and changing the wasteful ways golf courses are maintained, not to mention fiddoodling with regulations for lawn mowers, leaf blowers, snowmobiles, campers and all-terrain vehicles. But a NASCAR-intoxicated country does not take kindly to such talk.

That leaves us with the second method of holding down prices. We have to get to the energy elves and assorted wee people inside the gas station signs and make them execute a midcourse correction.