May 21 2007

Gas prices continue to rise: Who’s worried?

Gas hits record high price for eighth straight day – May. 20, 2007

According to CNN.com:

“The run-up in prices is a big concern for store chains, according to the retailers’ trade group. Its survey of consumers released early Friday found the average consumer believes that the price of gas will reach $3.32 per gallon by Father’s Day… As a result, 40.2 percent of consumers are taking fewer shopping trips, while 37.9 percent told the survey they plan to shop closer to home.”

“To offset the effects of higher prices, more consumers are giving their wallets a little extra cushion by cutting back on discretionary spending or choosing to frequent retailers closer to home.””

And this is a bad thing? To big chain stores, perhaps, but what about the neighborhood businesses (are there still any of those?) that will benefit after years of losing business to big box retailers like Wal-Mart and Home Depot? Consumers driving less may harm major retailers whose stores tend to be clumped together in mega shopping strips on the outskirts of towns, but surely the benefits of less driving outweigh the costs.

Fewer cars on the road mean less traffic, less noise, more space for cyclists, less hazard to pedestrians and children playing ball in their yards, cleaner air and a deceleration of global warming, more customers at neighborhood businesses, and perhaps even more quality time with family and friends (if we can assume less time shopping means more time with each other).

So if high gas prices result in so many improvements in our environment, relationships, communities and health, why are they such a bad thing? Perhaps because higher gas prices overburden the poor. Since fuel makes up a larger proportion of a poor family’s budget than a rich one’s, higher gas prices put a bigger dent in the disposable incomes of the poor than the rich. Economic theory would indicate that the poor’s demand for gas is more elastic than the rich’s, meaning that price increases are met with a greater decrease in consumption than someone for whom gas makes up a relatively small part of their overall budget. This, again, may not be so bad. Perhaps the poor will begin limiting their outings to those that are deemed most necessary (such as to and from work, school, child care or clinic) and cut back on unnecessary trips (such as to mall, the movie theater, the go cart track or the Wal-Mart across town). Less consumption may not lower overall standard of living when we consider that much of the consumption going on by Americans (rich and poor alike) is frivolous and ostentatious.

Even acknowledging the regressive nature of the burden of high gas prices, it still seems to me that higher prices are necessary to achieving a cleaner, healthier, better functioning society. The problem is, if prices are kept artificially high through price gouging, as the Democratic leadership in Congress seems to believe, then the full benefits of higher gas prices are being passed on to oil companies rather than society, as could be achieved with an effective gas tax.

CNN presents their own solution to the problem of high gas prices:

From higher taxes to more drilling, ways to cut gas prices – May. 10, 2007

1- Pass a carbon tax
2- Increase efficiency
3- Push alternatives
4- Require oil companies to make more gas
5- Build a gasoline reserve
6- Drill more oil

It’s too bad my AP class has finished for the year. I think a great quiz would be to hand them this list and ask, “What’s missing?” Anyone who’s completed a semester in a Principle of Microeconomics course should be able to get an A on such a quiz. Can you tell what’s missing? If so, please post your comment here. (Hint- fill in the blank: Supply and ______?_______)

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About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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