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You may not know what you paid for milk on your last trip to the grocery, but you probably know what you paid for gasoline on your last fill-up.

What you might not know, however, is that even with the recent spike in gas prices, Americans still are paying about the same for gasoline as they paid during the Carter administration — relatively speaking.

When adjusted for inflation, in today's dollars a gallon of gas costs less now than it did in 1976. And the price of crude oil is less than it was in the early and mid-1980s, when adjusted for inflation.

So why is it that Americans seem so hot and bothered about the price of gasoline?

Perhaps it is that gallons of gasoline, unlike dairy products or movie theater tickets, represent a direct link to our personal freedom.

Jon Allred is no psychologist, but he is an energy analyst with the Utah Energy Office. And he, for one, suggests motorists should look at today's gasoline prices and feel all warm inside — warm as in "comforted," not as in "internal rage."

Gasoline, Allred contends, remains one of the greatest economic values in America, and he is certain this country would get along just fine — and Utahns would still have the freedom to race maniacally to Moab, Zion or Bear Lake at will — even if gas prices rose to $10 a gallon. Not that he is suggesting that will ever happen. Relax, folks.

"We have a wonderful, wonderful situation with petroleum in that it is so cheap," Allred said. "Even at $2.90 a gallon, gasoline is an absolute steal. It is a great gift. It's just like manna from heaven at $3 a gallon."

Allred does not foresee gas prices climbing to $3 any time soon. (Although he will point out Europeans now pay $4.50 to $5 a gallon.) But his reference to $2.90 a gallon has pertinence. That is roughly the highest price Americans have ever paid for gasoline — when the price is adjusted for inflation, in today's dollars.

The price of gas during the last years of the Carter administration in the late 1970s and early 1980s climbed as high as $1.40 a gallon. But when adjusted for inflation, that would be like paying $2.90 a gallon today.

Similarly, gasoline prices in the earlier days of the automobile, like 1919-1922, were equivalent to paying about $2.80 or $2.90 per gallon today.

Jack Hamilton, assistant director of the Engineering Experiment Station at the University of Utah, has two decades' worth of experience in the petroleum industry. He has watched the trends and policy shifts over the years and doesn't see a public outcry today for changes in American energy use and consumption — just motorists shaking fists at pump prices.

"Back in the 1970s, when they had the first gas crisis, people were very, very upset about that, and I think the reason they were upset was because they couldn't get gasoline. They had to wait in long lines for hours and had to buy gas on every other day depending on what your license plate was, so it really wasn't available," Hamilton said.

"This time, there is plenty of supply, the price is just higher. But people seem to be willing to pay the price. They don't seem to be creating the pressure for change in our national energy policy."

Perhaps prices will have to climb a lot higher before that happens. Allred says some energy experts believe even higher prices wouldn't be such a bad idea, because Americans might be motivated to use fuel more efficiently — and more aggressively seek alternatives such as solar-power and gas-electric hybrid vehicles.

"Our economy could succeed, I think, at $10 a gallon of gasoline," he said. "And some people say it (a dramatic price increase) should (happen) — tack on a dollar tax and use that for conservation programs and it pays itself back, it really could."

Rolayne Fairclough, spokeswoman for AAA Utah, isn't sure that knowing how much gas costs when adjusted for inflation really makes motorists feel any better.

"I don't think we (drivers) think like an economist," she said. "Basically, we're just trying to do our budgets, and we don't have those long-term and analytic tools at our fingertips. And even if we did, we're still paying a lot more for gasoline."

A barrel of crude oil, when adjusted for inflation, costs less in today's dollars than it did in 1990. But the actual price could reach as high as $105 a barrel within several years, according to a Thursday release from investment bank Goldman Sachs.

Oil prices briefly climbed to record territory above $58 a barrel Monday as concerns about growing demand and potential supply disruptions once again overshadowed improving crude inventories.

"I've been doing this for 22 years, and I've never seen anything like this," said oil analyst Ken Miller at Purvin & Gertz in Houston. "I view this as a very unstable situation."

The average U.S. price for unleaded regular gasoline jumped 6.4 cents in the past week to $2.22 a gallon on Monday — the third consecutive weekly record, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

As for how much of a price hike Utahns may see the rest of this year, Fairclough said that's hard to predict. But the Memorial Day weekend, she said, typically signifies an annual peak in gasoline prices.

"Last year's highest price nationally came May 30 or 31," she said. "But in Utah, the highest price was at the end of October.

"What we need to be conscious of right now is there is a large level of speculation right now in the market, which is keeping these prices up."

And if they continue to rise, motorists can always take solace in the fact that they still are paying less than what they would have paid, relatively speaking, in 1982. Whether that brings them any comfort is up to the individual. Maybe honking the horn a few times when passing a high-priced pump would have the same effect.

Contributing: Associated Press, Bloomberg News

E-mail: zman@desnews.com