Should gas prices be soaring?

November 1, 2012

Traffic is flowing in New York again this morning, for four reasons. First is the ban on private cars entering the island if they’re carrying fewer than three people. Second is the subways, which have started working again, in a limited manner. Third is a noticeable increase in bicyclists, even between yesterday and today: I have real hope that Sandy might persuade a whole swath of new people that bike commuting is incredibly fast and easy. And then there’s a much more mundane fourth reason: people are running out of gas.

With much critical infrastructure still out, many gas stations don’t have electricity to pump gas, and most of the rest — at least in New York and New Jersey — have sold out, as people filled up not only their cars but any other vessels they could find. Gasoline is precious right now: it powers generators which pump out flooded buildings, as well as powering the one form of transportation which is capable of getting stuff from Brooklyn or New Jersey into Manhattan. As for when new supplies might arrive, that’s extremely vague, but the consensus seems to be Saturday.

There’s something self-fulfilling about gas shortages: they’re the crisis equivalent of a bank run. So long as everybody just goes about their day in a normal manner, refilling their tank only when they get low, everything goes smoothly. But when people start thinking that there might not be enough to go around, everybody panics and rushes to the stations: while shortages in New Jersey have real Sandy-related causes, shortages in places like Westchester are essentially the product of self-fulfilling fears.

The standard econowonk response to such things (see e.g. Yglesias, or for that matter Uber, which has reverted to “surge pricing”) is that if the market were just left to its own devices, none of this would happen. Prices fluctuate in response to changes in supply and demand, so when supply goes down and demand goes up, it’s only natural that they should rise to the point at which demand starts falling off and the two finally meet again. At that point, the gas stations will still sell most of their gas, but there won’t be massive lines at the pump, and there will always be gas — at a price — for those who really need it.

It doesn’t help matters that such arguments tend to come from the kind of people who can afford to pay extra for their essentials. Crises always hit the poor worse than the rich, even when prices don’t rise: in my own NYC neighborhood, for instance, there is tragic human suffering right now, even as I have a warm and comfy office to go to, a group of rich friends with spare rooms, and enough money to pay for a hotel or Airbnb room should I need it. If the Lower East Side’s handful of open bodegas started price-gouging just because they had a captive audience, that would only exacerbate the situation — quite aside from the fact that it would also open them up to the very real risk of grievous bodily harm.

At times like this, the charitable impulse, of helping out where and when you can, is very strong: hence the articles with headlines like “Donate to Hurricane Sandy Victims with a Simple Text Message”. Even as gas stations are running dry, individuals across the northeast are siphoning out gas from their cars’ tanks to provide fuel for people who need it more than they do. They’re not charging a market-clearing price for doing so: in fact, they’re not charging any money at all. Multiplied thousands of times, such small individual acts of charity make a huge difference.

Meanwhile, during a crisis, the opportunity costs involved in sitting in a long line for gas actually fall substantially. Yglesias is right that price-gouging would reduce those costs, but they are the least of the damage that a storm like this causes. Much more important is the feeling that your neighbors are rallying together at a very hard time. If we all run out of gas, we’ll all run out of gas. But we won’t try to profiteer from that, and we’ll try to use it in as effective a way as possible, rather than just letting it get acquired by whomever happens to be most price-insensitive.

That’s why there’s something a bit distasteful about Uber’s insistence that the only way they can provide a good service these days is by charging more money. The cost of gas has not gone up: either their drivers can find the gas to drive people around or they can’t. The drivers, for their part, already make good money from Uber, whose prices are high; doubling those prices seems excessive, especially when there’s a strong impulse at times like these to help people out without charging any money at all.

I’m not taking a position here on price-gouging laws: while I don’t like the practice, I’m also not convinced that it should be made illegal. But the fact is that the benefits of price-gouging tend to accrue to a handful of merchants and the price-insensitive rich, while the costs are borne by those who can least afford it. ‘Twas always thus, or course, but during a crisis, especially, it’s a good idea to try to minimize such mechanisms, rather than trying to encourage them.


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