Friday, September 11, 2009

The Best of Citizen Nothing -- Gougers Vs. Terrorism Edition

Sept. 17, 2001
God bless the U.S. price gougers.
I had hoped to spot one Tuesday evening (Sept. 11) as I was driving home from the newsroom, my heart heavy and my gas tank nearly empty.
Unfortunately, community spirit had triumphed over economics, at least west of Hague Avenue.
Every filling station had held prices firm, and panicky motorists were lined up to top off their SUVs with gas that suddenly seemed cheap.
Soccer moms struggled mightily to squeeze a 36th gallon into a 35-gallon tank.
Retirees who had watched Dan Rather for 11 solid hours suddenly remembered gauges pointing slightly to the left of "F" and fired up long-idled Buicks for a trip to the corner station.
Businessmen, their Lexuses sated, filled dusty gas cans, ruining their wingtips with the overflow.
The purpose of terrorism is to spawn terror. So the panic evident in those gas lines -- hundreds of miles from ground zero -- seemed unpatriotic.
But we all do what we can, I suppose. Shedding a tear while filling a jerrycan and listening to Lee Greenwood are all the patriotism some folks can muster. At least that's what I told myself while cruising past those crazed gas-station scenes.
The advertised price was anywhere from $1.55 to $1.70 a gallon. With an hour wait, though, the true cost was much, much higher to me -- more than I was willing to pay.
I wanted to be home with my family.
I don't begrudge my fellow citizens their God-given right to cheap gasoline. I think it's mentioned in Amendment (Phillips) 66 of the Constitution.
But a temporary price of $4 or $6 a gallon might have chased off the panicked Tuesday, leaving supplies to folks in my predicament -- out of gas, far from home, stymied by tank-toppers.
Had I found a station with $4 gas and no waiting, I would have griped and moaned -- another of my rights as an American. But I'd have been getting a bargain.
Some gas at $4 a gallon beats none at $1.55. Somehow, the disastrous Nixon and Carter price controls failed to etch this lesson indelibly into the American psyche.
I was lucky. I coasted home and siphoned enough gas from my garden tractor to get me to work Wednesday morning. I filled up, at $1.60 a gallon, that afternoon -- no waiting.
Hip-hip-hurray for those high-minded station owners who kept their wits about them and kept their prices low.
But hurray for the gougers, too. Maybe they were greedy jackals. Maybe they were as panicky as the tank-toppers. But they filled an important niche during a crisis -- by accident, of course. That's how the American economy works.
Too bad politicians know less about economics than they do about pandering.
The state will attempt to placate the teeth-gnashing, gas-guzzling mob by suing four stations that raised prices Tuesday.
"Profiteering in the wake of a national tragedy . . . is unconscionable and unacceptable," Attorney General Betty D. Montgomery said.
Perhaps. But so is political grandstanding.
To paraphrase ol' Lee Greenwood: I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free to gouge.

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