The other day, I walked in to my newspaper office expecting to cover a public board meeting, and my editors asked me to do a story on rising gas prices. A local station had started to charge $4.09 a gallon (this was before they all started doing that.) The transportation reporter is out on paternity leave, our news section is down about half the reporters it was a year ago, and gas prices are on reader’s minds. It was a fair assignment and turned into a not-bad story.
The story led with the expensive gas station, quoted a representative of big oil and an industry analyst, and was tied to a chart that showed prices around the city. The headline was “Pain at the Pump.” If you’ve lived in America for a chunk of your life, chances are you’ve seen that headline on every gas price news story in your local paper or on your local TV station every spring, summer, and most long-weekend holidays.
High gas prices are attributable to a range of economic factors: increased demand, decreased supply, conflicts in oil producing countries, and the declining value of the U.S. dollar. But what everyday people always want to complain about is taxes, the gas tax that funds most highway projects, and the corporate fat cats who are making off with the working man’s dollar, or credit card swipe. Or so politicians shilling the ridiculous gas tax holiday had hoped.
(I should say now that I think that, no matter how a reporter feels about something, it is both possible and imperative to aim for objectivity. I also think reporters have a responsibility to keep their eyes on the longer, deeper struggles that momentary conflicts may mask. When you work at a daily newspaper — especially these days with the budget cuts and fewer reporters to fill a news hole — it’s much, much easier to focus on the latter at the former’s sacrifice.)
On the day I started to work on the gas price story it occurred to me; I couldn’t care less about gas prices, and doing a story about how gas prices are high today won’t do a damn thing to help readers. Because it’s probably a safe bet that gas prices won’t get substantially lower until our cars have solar panels or we’re sinking into an ever-growing ocean of seawater and melting ice and industrial sludge, scratching our heads about how it happened so quickly.
Gas and oil companies are making record profits, yada yada. Of course they are. They’re companies. Contrary to what people seem to believe, it’s not their job to make their gas cheap. And America still has much cheaper gas than most of Europe. In London, gas prices average more than $6 U.S.
I am the new owner of a vehicle, and I don’t make very much money. I hate paying for gas. I think about it every mile I drive. It costs me $40 to fill my small car’s tank. But I also don’t drive if I can help it. I live close to my job. I don’t drive after I go home from work, and I jog around my neighborhood instead of driving to the gym. I walk to the grocery store, and if I have to go further I don’t go often. I do drive pretty regularly into New York City, back and forth to work and I have to drive to some degree for my job. But now that the weather is warmer, I plan on walking to the train station (it’s not close) and to work when I know I won’t need my car on the job.
Many Americans will tell you they can’t do that, that they live in suburban or rural areas where nothing is in walking distance and they have no mass transportation. That’s true, they have to drive. But they don’t have to drive alone. It’s hard for me to sympathize with a nation that still refuses to carpool. Just share a ride. It’s not that hard, if you can stand sharing a small space with the person, as the industry analyst I interview noted. Or a nation that refuses to ask for the ability to work from home one day a week or month, or to lobby for their elected officials to spend some of those tax dollars on public transportation. And while we’re at it, I’d bet $4.09 that everyone who complains drives their kids to school or pays for their gas so they can drive, letting a perfectly serviceable school bus drive by every morning without picking them up. And why aren’t teachers taking the school bus, too?
But those things aren’t convenient. It means they can’t rush out the door at the last minute and use a little 15 minute flex time in reporting to work. It means they have to keep their cars relatively clean and coordinate schedules and share the radio or walk a little bit farther than the length of the parking lot.
That’s what we’ve been doing for way to long; trading convenience for common sense. It’s the same reason people won’t change their light bulbs to compact fluorescent ones. They’re kind of expensive at the outset, but mostly, the light’s kind of blue and people don’t like it.
Do these little things make a difference anyway? Ask your wallet at the end of a year. The same people who are demanding a gas tax holiday or an inquiry into whether big oil is doing something sneaky are the same ones who would protest if the government intervenes on real social ills. They’re the same ones who preach personal responsibility when there’s a foreclosure, or talk about “accountability” when poor urban schools fail. Because they pay for gas and don’t want to make a minor adjustment to their days, the government should intervene to lower a price that is arguably not high enough to reflect its true cost to our society, health and planet as a whole. Normally, when a product gets to be more expensive than we can afford, there’s a much simpler solution. We stop buying it.