Observing US:
A column about America,
by Marylaine Block
originally published by
Fox News Online, 1998-2000

#81, April 4, 2000


by Marylaine Block

I'm puzzled at the notion that $2 gasoline is a national crisis. I understand that it's hard on truckers with fixed price contracts, on minimum-wage workers with no other way to get to work, and those who cover wide sales territories by car. But for the rest of us, an extra $4 to $10 when we fill up is a nuisance, not a crisis. Few of us must choose between gas and food.

I'm even more puzzled at how Americans have responded to price increases. How many times have you seen TV crews interviewing drivers of yuppie tanks (I believe the technical name is SUVs) who complain that it's a conspiracy -- the oil companies are causing a fake crisis to enrich themselves.

I'm hardly the oil companies' biggest fan, but I do feel it's unreasonable to expect them to charge less for gasoline than they paid for the oil they refined it from. I think it's also worth noting that some oil can't be turned into gasoline because it's needed for home heating -- gas prices are always cheaper once New England's furnaces aren't running.

Doesn't it also seem likely that all the SUVs and vans and RVs on the road, each getting 10-12 miles a gallon, might have increased the demand for oil? When I hear their owners whining on the news, my response is, "I'm sorry, but the law of supply and demand has not been repealed for your convenience."

Another common complaint is about those conniving countries that are holding us up. The nerve of them! We bailed them out in the Gulf War, and this is what they do to us?

What we're overlooking is that when we were getting cheap oil from them after the war, their economies were going to hell. As our own oil drillers and our farmers have found, when prices are too low to recover your costs, you go broke.

The fact is, the oil is THEIRS. These countries have a right to control how fast they pump it out, because for one thing, once it's all gone, they'll have no economy left; they need to use their nonrenewable resource as wisely as they can.

And they have a right to make as much money for it as people are willing to pay. We reject absolutely rules about how much WE can charge for our products and services -- many doctors don't accept Medicare and Medicaid patients because of the arbitrary payment limits for their services.

But reason really doesn't have much to do with our reactions. We WANT to drive, we WANT to do it cheaply, and we WANT our government to fix it RIGHT NOW. So there was briefly a move in Congress to repeal the four cent gas tax enacted in 1993.

Congress ignored the fact that that tax was enacted by one vote, and that once it's repealed it will be almost impossible to restore it; they overlooked the fact that it would only reduce the cost of gas by maybe a dollar or less IF the oil companies passed the savings on to us; they failed to notice that other countries use stiff gasoline taxes to pay for damage that cars and trucks inflict on the environment, while we use general tax revenues for that purpose.

Congress backed off only when the governors pointed out to them that that the gas tax pays for roadbuilding. Oops. (Amazing how often Congress forgets that tax money actually does useful things sometimes.)

Freedom of movement may be America's most important value, and the car (or SUV) our most important expression of that. When it comes to the gas that keeps us rolling, we not only don't believe there's no such thing as a free lunch; we demand it and ask for seconds.

When we have the other kind of gas pain, we ruefully admit it's our own fault -- we ate too much, we ate too fast. We might admit that in this case, too, and use current gas prices as an occasion to think about the consequences of our energy profligacy. We could view the gas crunch as God's way of saying, "Oh, grow up."

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