Price gouging at the gasoline pumps? Not at all. Simply prudent behavior.

Who says so? Professor McKenzie says so. Richard McKenzie, professor of finance and economics at the University of Mississippi, is somewhat of a rarity in his ability to assemble scholarly data in clarifying popular issues.True, McKenzie is a believer in the ability of the marketplace to make intelligent adjustments to changes in supply and demand, but he assumes that you too believe in that system. Or do you?

As a participant in the real estate market - most people are participants, as owners or renters - you might find of special interest this aspect of his argument:

"The charge that producers should not profit from the Iraqi crisis is about as sensible as claiming that homeowners in Los Angeles who bought their houses in the 1950s are morally bound not to profit when selling them."

If homeowners do not collect their accumulated profits, asks the professor, how will they be able to replace their homes? He suggests they cannot declare that the marketplace should accommodate them. Of course not.

Besides, if they decline to take profits, that doesn't mean the profits aren't there. It means only that the owner-seller declines to accept them; the profits will be passed on to the buyer, who will collect them on the next resale.

Except for his strong belief in free markets, McKenzie has no known reason to defend oil companies. His identification with the subject is academic, as a professor and as a fellow of the Center for the Study of American Business, based on the campus of St. Louis' Washington University.

In that latter regard, he produced "Working Paper 137," detailing his findings and conclusions.

-Taking 1967 as a base year, the price of a gallon of gasoline ($1.38 at the time the paper was written) had risen less since 1960 than the price of the basket of goods that goes into the calculation of the consumer price index.

-Uncle Sam has a bit to do with those higher pump prices. Gasoline taxes were 10.5 cents a gallon in 1960. They rose to 14.5 cents in 1981 and to 26.9 cents in July 1990. And, of course, they have just risen again.

-The quality of gasoline has risen, providing more miles to the gallon and less pollution, too. American consumers are now spending a much smaller percent of disposable income on gasoline than in 1970 or earlier decades.

In 1989, McKenzie states, "Gasoline expenditures for the `typical' consumer as a percent of his or her disposable income fell precipitously to less than one-half of the 1970 level and to almost a third of the 1980 level."

McKenzie makes this effort - stressed in his paper - to describe recent pricing events at the pump, which a great many Americans have chosen to call gouging:

"Oil markets must not only account for current reductions in supplies but also must seek to anticipate the prospects of further declines in the oil supplies."

When production of any good or service involves delivery at a future time, he explains, "then competitive prices reflect both current and expected future supplies."

It is like the Los Angeles homeowner who must worry about earning enough on the sale of his present house to buy another, especially if the housing market, like the oil market, is volatile and unpredictable.

For oil companies and service stations to deny the future uncertainty of their markets would have been folly, says McKenzie, who repeats:

"The major cost of staying in business is not the past purchase price of any item in inventory but the future replacement cost of that item."

If there has been collusion with the industry or a conspiracy to gouge the public, McKenzie says that those involved have done a mighty poor job of it.