Unhinged at the Pump

How much do people imagine a gallon of gasoline costs these days? A small fortune, to judge by a Rasmussen Research survey fielded prior to the Memorial Day weekend. The poll found 61 percent of adults saying they didn’t plan to travel over the weekend, and 39 percent of these cited gas prices as their “main reason” for staying put. Let’s do some arithmetic here. Say your car gets 20 miles per gallon, and you’d thought of driving 400 miles on a Memorial Day trip—i.e., as much as any reasonable soul would care to do on a three-day weekend. Even if gas cost 50 cents per gallon more than you’re used to paying, that works out to an extra $10 for your jaunt—hardly enough to bust the bank. What this exercise suggests is that consumers are spooked by the gas-price rise out of any proportion to its real effects on them so far. (Nineteen percent of respondents to a Gallup poll last month said the price of gas is “in a state of crisis,” and 60 percent called it a “major problem.”) Prices for most things rise, and people take it in stride. What’s different about gasoline? No doubt we’re sensitive to anything that crimps our ability to go where we please. But it may be we’re taken aback by higher gas prices because it’s one of the few items whose price sometimes goes down. We’re programmed to accept a steady upward creep in prices for most of what we buy; we’re undone by unpredictable fluctuations. The obvious solution: Instead of adopting controls that keep gas prices down, the feds should initiate controls that prevent them from falling once they’ve risen.