Why I don’t care about the price of gas. What is seen and unseen.

March 16th, 2011

I don’t know how much gas costs where I live. I fill up usually once a week with regular, but I don’t even bother checking the price per gallon,or the total amount. I just blindly swipe my credit card, pump, and go on my way. People think this is absurd. I regularly ignore rants about the rising price of gas ($4! $5!). How am I so content? Informed rational ignorance.

I discovered long ago that all the prices of gas in Johnstown (and really Western, PA) are the same, or perhaps within a 5 or 10 cent range. All gas is more-or-less the same. I need to drive a certain number of miles per week for business and pleasure. That requires a certain number of gallons of gas.┬áTherefore, no matter where I go, I am paying the same amount for the same gas. It makes no sense to worry over every increase in the price of gas because I will not modify my needs. So really, it doesn’t make a difference to me.

But why is the price of gas always such a popular topic? Some Bastiat may be helpful–remember what is seen,and what is unseen. The price of gas is seen in a very visible way. At every street corner gas stations prominently display the price of gas in huge numbers. It is very easy to compare the price of gas between gas stations (Sunoco costs more than Exxon!), and from day to day (Gas cost $3.45 yesterday and today it is $3.50!). It always amazed me that people who have absolutely no control over their finances, and spend indiscriminately still carp about the price of gas.

Certainly fluxes in the price of gas are seen. But what about the costs in your life that are (relatively) unseen? What if you received an e-mail or text message from the state every day indicating how much of your income that day went towards paying taxes? Considering uncertainty over the future of tax rates, this number will certainly be in flux. What if every product you purchased that is subject to some tariff or anti-competitive trade policy, listed the increase in price due to that policy? What if every meal you purchase included a note of how many tax dollars of farm subsidies contributed to this meal? Or, what if the price of gas included a breakdown of how much of that price included local, state, and federal taxes (a huge chunk)? All of these costs, which impact how much we spend on more than one commodity, are largely unseen.

I am much more cognizant of these costs, as they impact a larger chunk of my wallet than gas. Say I purchase 25 gallons of gasoline a week (much more than I would ever buy). At $3 a gallon that is $75. At $4 a gallon that is $100. At $5 a gallon that is $125. I’d wager that this $50 increase, which people are quite aware of, pales in comparison with some of the other unseen costs I mentioned above. People are cognizant of what is seen, but ignore what is unseen.

Oh, and I just googled it. Today the price of gas in Johnstown is between $3.55 and $3.59.