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Monday, September 22, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 6/18/2000

Our love affair with cars drives gas prices up

It's no picnic driving to the gas pumps these days and I don't like it any more than you do. It used to cost just over $10 to top off the tank on my wonderfully fuel-efficient compact. Now I pay nearly double that amount to fill 'er up and wish - in my dreams - that the gas gauge would hold steady for twice as long. I do try to get more gusto to the gallon by accomplishing as many errands as possible in one trip, but I'm still paying a bigger chunk of my disposable income on gasoline than before, so something's gotta give.

Or does it? A syndicated radio sports show host regularly laments that the country's gone soft, that its gumption got up and went, that, in the main, Americans are too "fat, dumb, and happy" to get riled up about anything. I might take exception to the man's generalization, but, honestly, he's got a point. As a whole, we're generally not uncomfortable enough or financially pressed enough or socially conscious enough to get off the sofa and revolt about anything. We're good at complaining and that's about it. Now we're whining about the outrageous prices at the pumps and blaming everyone from the oil companies to the EPA and OPEC for jerking our chain with higher gas prices.

This time around, Midwest customers lucky us are paying more than many for gasoline, and our politicians are getting an earful from angry constituents. They're responding, of course, in the time-buying tradition of politicians by demanding an official investigation into (fill in the blank) gas gouging in the heartland. I love it. Long after the horses have left the barn, these fools want to investigate locksmiths. They just don't get it.

Led by Republican Rep. Steve LaTourette of Cleveland, a group of Ohio congressmen is urging the Federal Trade Commission to review the oppressive gasoline prices back home. By the tone of their demands, it is clear they suspect underhanded behavior by some petroleum entity and, by golly, they'll get to the bottom of it no matter how ridiculous they look.

Downstate Rep. Steve Chabot is obviously clueless about why gas prices are high in his district but that didn't stop him from postulating about everything from lifting restraints on domestic oil exploration to changing foreign diplomacy with oil-rich nations. "Action on gas prices is long overdue," opined the learned Republican. "I think we need to be much tougher diplomatically that we are with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, in particular . . ."

Gee, do you think? Earth to Mr. Chabot. It's a good bet the higher-than-usual gas prices this summer have little to do with OPEC or finite domestic oil production. More likely prices are high to take advantage of the crush of seasonal drivers queueing up to fill their tanks several times over to see the USA in their Chevrolets, Hondas, or whatever. We've been down this road before. The oil barons will feign impotence over supply and demand realities or subscribe to newer spins like insisting the cost of making cleaner burning gas, as required by the EPA, had to be recouped by - guess who?

But you and I know the reason the price flips over so much faster than the gallons count on the pump odometer during the summer is greed. Oil companies jack up the prices during peak driving periods of the year because they can. They have motorists over a barrel so to speak and will continue to shake down drivers for as much as possible until something gives or customers revolt en masse. Which brings me back to my initial hypothesis that neither is gonna happen any time soon because we Americans are too "fat, dumb, and happy" to exert any effort to change lanes or pull off the road altogether.

We would rather drive our popular gas hogs and grumble about those greedy SOBs in the oil industry than switch to something that makes more sense - like mass transit. High-speed commuter trains between Ohio cities was a great idea that went over like a lead balloon ostensibly because of cost, but the reality is that people would rather drive than switch transportation modes. We'd rather spend billions on paving and maintaining new highways or widening existing ones to accompany ever more drivers, than switch to something far more prudent in the future.

Politicians and urban planners can always find excuses for shelving proposals to build commuter trains and tracks linking city to city, or city to outer suburbs. They opt to pay more over the long haul to fix the wear and tear on roads caused by overweight trucks and air-polluting automobiles splashing expensive fuel in their gas tanks, than invest in long-term sanity. Bottom line is, they acquiesce to the majority of voters who prefer to drive themselves wherever they please and eschew car pools and mass transit as a bit too bohemian for them.

So we burn a lot of gasoline driving ourselves to work, the bank, post office, or grocery store - and voila! - higher prices follow. No great mystery, just business seizing an opportunity to make hay while the sun shines, knowing full well car-dependent customers will continue to pay through the nose for the privilege of sitting another day in rush-hour traffic.

Instead of raging at the highway robbery grabbing all your hard-earned money at the local gas pumps, ask how much you're willing to pay to keep your love affair with the automobile running on a full tank. Just as I suspected. Is the sofa comfy enough, America?

Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer. E-mail her at mjohanek@theblade.com



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