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What to do about gasoline prices

Almost anything the government does in response to the recent high gasoline prices is bound to fail. The easy political solution is to place price controls on gasoline, as Hawaii has done. Basic economics tells us that when a price is held artificially low through price controls, demand will be higher than what it would otherwise be, and supply will be less than it would otherwise be. What does that spell? A shortage, as was the case the last time there were price controls on gasoline. The misery of dealing with lines at gas stations was much worse than slightly higher gasoline prices.

As Thomas Sowell wrote in a recent column: “The last time we had price controls on gasoline, we had long lines of cars at filling stations, these lines sometimes stretching around the block, with motorists sitting in those lines for hours.

That nonsense ended almost overnight when President Ronald Reagan, ignoring the cries of liberal politicians and the liberal media, got rid of price controls with a stroke of the pen.

What happened is what usually happens when government restrictions are ended: There was more production of oil. In fact the 1980s became known as the era of an ‘oil glut’ and gasoline prices declined.”

In an article titled “What’s the Answer for High Gasoline Prices? Absolutely Nothing” by Jerry Taylor & Peter VanDoren, published last October in National Review, we read:

“… consumers have a right to make their own decisions about trade-offs between higher gasoline prices and conservation without the government whacking them over the head with higher taxes, constrained choices in the vehicle market, or extracting their earnings for the benefit of corporations engaged in making cars or fuels that consumers presently don’t want to buy. Simply put, individuals know better how to order their personal affairs than do politicians or bureaucrats no matter how well meaning they might be.

At the end of the day, the best remedy for high gasoline prices is…high gasoline prices, which provide all the incentives necessary for motorists to conserve, for oil companies to put more product into the marketplace, and for investors to look into alternatives fuel technologies. Government has never demonstrated an ability to do better.”

There are also unintended consequences of any action. When government requires higher fuel economy quickly (as many are calling for), automakers will find that the easiest way to comply is to decrease the weight of cars, since weight is the most important determinant of fuel economy. As Dr. Sowell wrote: “Many of the same people who cry ‘No blood for oil!’ also want higher gas mileage standards for cars. But higher mileage standards have meant lighter and more flimsy cars, leading to more injuries and deaths in accidents — in other words, trading blood for oil.”

News stories tell us of SUV drivers considering trading for vehicles with more efficient usage of gasoline. Anyone who is considering such a move needs to do a little arithmetic first. Figure out the cost per mile, considering gasoline only, for the two vehicles. Then consider the costs of ownership of a new vehicle. Sales tax alone on a new $25,000 car (that’s about the average price now) in Wichita is $1,825. If you trade a 15 mpg vehicle for a 25 mpg vehicle, with gas at $2.60 per gallon, you’re saving about $.173 per mile in gasoline costs. That seems like a lot, but you’ll need to drive 10,549 miles just to “save” what you paid in sales tax. For many people, it might take a year to drive that many miles.

Consider the other costs. Since cars depreciate at about 2% per month, a $25,000 vehicle depreciates about $500 its first month. The vehicle you already own that’s worth, say, $10,000 depreciates just $200 the same month. That difference of $300 requires 1,734 miles of driving to pay for (but will decrease each month as the new car rapidly loses its value). If you borrow money to buy the new car, you’re paying interest that needs to be allowed for. Add it all up, and you may not be saving as much as you thought you might. Then, if the price of gasoline drops, you may not save anything at all.

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