Probably because they are posted in big red letters beside the road, because putting gas in a car is probably the single most universally and frequently experienced transaction Americans make, and because we seem to have this identity meme about being who we are because we can drive alone anywhere we want and park free when we get there, gas prices have become a sort of floating indicator of how terribly the country is on the wrong track, deplored by all our political leadership and constantly waved around by pundits and commentators signaling their understanding of how ordinary people live.
This is too bad for several reasons. A dollar difference in gasoline prices, for a family that drives 10,000 miles a year in a car that gets 20 mpg, is $500 per year, less than a latte a day and only about a tenth of the cost of driving. It’s not nothing, but people have really important stuff to worry about:
- not having a job at all,
- being underwater or in foreclosure on your house,
- not being able to afford a house that doesn’t put you into a two-hour commute
- not having clean, cheap, humane public transit so you don’t have to drive so much in the first place
- having your kids in schools that don’t work for them,
- having your house burned up in Texas or blown to splinters in North Carolina,
- not being able to get into classes to graduate from college in four years and having to work a full-time job instead of studying to pay tuition, and
- suddenly having to tax yourself thousands of dollars a year savings now to pay for future medical care when Medicare has been pulled out from under you by Ryan and his pals if you’re under 55.
Compared to these, $5 gas is pretty small beer, and $3 gas won’t fix any of them.
Actually, $3 gas will make most of them worse. American gas prices are way below the real cost of using the product: oil (only a little more than half of the pump price) is traded in a market that more or less balances the value of using it now or later, but highway taxes are obviously too low (we spend them all and are still stuck in traffic and bouncing on potholes, or at risk of falling through wornout bridges) and there are the externalities of local pollution and global warming we aren’t paying for. Selling something below its real cost is the root of a host of evils, and these evils are the pure, non-ideological, efficiency type, not distributional or ethical.
When the government gets into “keeping gas prices low” instead of “keeping gas prices at marginal cost”, further evils, and worse ones, sprout. This constitutes government lying to people about how the world really is, and it’s unconscionable, like teaching kids in public school that Adam rode a dinosaur to the office in the morning. Its what Ugo Chavez and Ahmadinejad do. Our whole political establishment has latched onto this mendacious and irresponsible bread and circuses meme, and it’s disgraceful, the more so as the dinosaurs-in-Eden crowd is getting its marching orders from the “drain America first” folks.