Monday, February 11, 2013

Fuel & Fickle Outrage

Ten or fifteen years ago, there was a sudden nationwide spike in the price of gasoline. Where I live, in California, a gallon was approaching $2.00 — which, at the time, was considered frighteningly high. The local news did a segment at gas stations, in which folks vented their frustrations. “At least at this station, the price is reasonable,” said one customer, prompting the reporter to quip, “$1.50 is reasonable?”

It was funny, because just a month or two earlier, $1.50 would have been seen as expensive. Today in some places of the U.S., four-dollar gas is normal now, and if it spiked up to $5.00 this summer, you can be sure that even $4.50 would soon be the new reasonable.

I think oil companies and OPEC should manipulate the public’s ongoing discontent with fuel prices, as a way to become way more profitable. It would just take a little conspiracy: Every six or nine months, have the price of gas shoot up by about a dollar, and keep it there for a couple of weeks. Then drop it back down — but not quite to where it started. Each cycle, the price creeps higher and higher. As long as the low price is much less than the outrageous number it came down from, relieved consumers will be delighted that they’re getting gas for a relatively reasonable price. If you keep shifting the standard of what’s reasonable, consumers will practically thank you and ask for seconds. Why hasn’t anyone thought of this??

Of course I’m kidding. The above scenario kind of already happens, and it says something about the way people think. A few years ago there was a lot of crowing when gas prices were pushing $4.50 ($5.00 in my area). Some SUV owners actually traded in their Suburbans and Hummers for more efficient cars. It was positively delicious. But now that the prices have been fairly stable for a couple of years, I see more SUVs on the road than ever. Consumers just don’t seem to care; I guess the price of gas is reasonable again. (Compared to Europe and other places, it’s been reasonable for a very long time.)

People tend to react against perceived change because they just don’t like change. If it costs them more money, then they really don’t like it. But in the long term, when standards and expectations are forced to evolve over time, the threshold for consumer outrage just drifts along with the tide. Like heat waves among climate change, the sudden fluctuations are clear to see, but the gradual global trend is less likely to get our everyday attention.

Then again, a lot of us just aren’t paying attention.


  1. I have nominated you for a Versatile Blogger Award.

  2. It's worse than we thought!