Friday, August 11, 2006

(Grease)Monkey On Our Backs

Now that the primaries are behind us, we can focus our energies on the big general election coming ‘round this November. I know it’s not really the “big” election when we choose a president; however, I think the mid-term elections are a time when a lot can change, and perhaps our vote carries more power than it normally does. My friend Mike had a lot to say about that in a recent blog (see Mike Has A Thought), so I won’t go into that here. No, my purpose here is to try to make some sense of the crushing grip that oil has on our society, as the price of oil (usually directly translated into the price of gasoline) is sure to play a big part in this election...and probably all the ones in the future as well.

I get discouraged when I hear “ordinary” U.S. citizens gripe about the price of gas; I get right-out pissed off when the president, governors, senators & representatives dive right into the fray with claims to “do something” about it. Do WHAT, exactly? Does the “average” person on the street REALLY think that his legislators can do anything about the price of gas? Last time I checked, my congressional representative didn’t have an oil well in his back yard; ergo, he doesn’t control the price of oil.

A popular target for this griping has been oil companies, and the executives who run them. We hear a lot in the media about “record profits” for BP, Shell, Exxon & the rest, and we fire cheap shots at those companies for gouging the consumer in order to reap huge financial windfalls. Okay, that’s maybe not so bad: it does come off as a tad unseemly for a few hundred execs to rake in millions off the backs of $3-a-gallon gasoline. On the other hand...I don’t hear stockholders in those companies complaining one bit! Seems to me that PART of the reason oil companies are making huge profits is because the stock market DEMANDS it. Could be that’s the same reason Ken Lay cooked the books for Enron, but that’s a different blog entirely...

So, if you’re tired of bitching about oil company profits, go buy some stock; then the profits are YOURS as well, and we can move on to the price of gas itself. I’ve heard whispers in the news that, adjusted for inflation, we’re paying LESS for gasoline today than we did in 1981, the record-holding year for price. I’m just enough of a conspiracy theorist in my reptilian brain that I hold most “news” with a fair amount of skepticism; those topics I care enough about, I do my own research on. Here’s what I found (and most of this data comes from the government’s own Census website, along with a cool comparison site I found at

In the year 2000 (the most-recent I could find for annual household income), the average price of a gallon of gasoline was $1.51; the median household income (I realize that “average” and “median” are not the same thing, but couldn’t find the median price of gas) for that year in Michigan (my state) was $46,181. A little math reveals that 100 gallons of gas that year would have cost $151, which is .33% of the household income. Hmm. Go back to 1990: price of gas, $1.16, median Mich. household income, $31,020. $116 for 100 gallons of gas is .37% of total income. The average family spent MORE of their household income on gasoline in 1990 than they did in 2000. Interesting. Go back ANOTHER decade: 1980. Price of gas that year was $1.25...nearly the record-setting high of 1981. Household income: $19,223. Price of 100 gallons is $125, representing a whopping .65% of total income. DOUBLE what it would be 20 years later. Wow. Just for kicks I did 1970 as well, and found that even at 36¢ a gallon (who could believe it!), with a median household income of only $9,997 100 gallons of gas STILL consumed .36% of that income...roughly what it did 6 years ago. For me, those numbers seal the deal: we’re spoiled here, and we have been for a long time. The price of gas for a damn DECADE barely moved: between 1990 and 1999, the average price of gas was somewhere between $1.16 and $1.23 per gallon...and that high amount was hit in the MIDDLE of the ‘90s. So...bitch all you want about the price of gas, but it’s STILL just as cheap (compared to income) as it has been in 30 years.

What are we really griping about, then? I think that what we’re ultimately upset about isn’t what gas COSTS, it’s how much of it we USE. Artificially deflated prices during the 1990s convinced us we could drive anything, anywhere. We guzzled gas in our Sputes (my preferred term for SPort UTility vehicles), toured the country in our bus-sized RVs, and bought any number of gas-powered toys. Let’s face it: we drive EVERYWHERE. Need to run to the store that’s a mile away? Jump in the car. Doing some back-to-school shopping? Drive to the nearest outlet mall (for us, that would be a 45-mile trip, one way). Then get home, turn around and drive 20 miles to the movies later that night. On long trips our cars are fairly gas-conservative (my Vibe gets around 28 mpg on the highway), but lots of folks don’t think twice about jumping in the car for the worst-mileage trips we can find: little jaunts around town, just because it’s either easier or quicker than walking. Or biking. Or skating. WONDER we’re getting so fat as a society...we DRIVE EVERYWHERE! That Whopper probably wouldn’t be NEARLY so bad for you if you walked a mile there & back to get it!

Driving, then, mostly comes down to a choice. Not always: my spouse & I live in a town that’s as near to in-between our respective workplaces as we can get. That gives each of us a 90-100 mile round-trip commute. We could save TONS on gas if one of us would give up the job we’re trained to do and take some mindless automaton job in the town of the other. So, we choose that driving. But the rest...we’ve learned to combine trips. We walk to the video store, and bike for ice cream. I’ve learned that there isn’t much in St. Johns I can’t walk or bike to, as long as I can carry back goods in that fashion. Hell, you can’t do a week’s worth of shopping by BICYCLE...but you CAN fit dinner & a bottle of wine in a backpack and bike home before it spoils. Do that every day, and not only will your food be’ll be thinner.

Ultimately our griping about the cost of gas will go away, because OIL will someday go away. That’s a doom-&-gloom scenario beyond the scope of this blog, but just to see what we’re talking about when “the oil runs out” (as our pols like to say), I found out that, well, damn near EVERYTHING has oil (or some sort of petrochemical derivative OF oil) as an ingredient. Most canned food, furniture upholstery, pillows, insulation, safety glass, lipstick, paint...the list seems endless, and you can read it yourself at If we want to stop bitching about the cost of gas - and continue to enjoy the thousands of products made from oil - we need the fortitude to stop being so damn addicted to flushing it through our cars. That’s sort of like flushing money directly down the toilet.