May 18, 2004

RE: Don't buy gas May 19

This FYI brought to you by Snopes.Com, The Urban Legend Reference

Claim: Participating in a one-day "gas out" on May 19 will help bring the retail price of gasoline down.
Status: False.
Origins: Although it went into hiding for several years, the one-day "gas out" craze is back — and with it a reminder that protest schemes that don't cost the the participants any inconvenience, hardship, or money remain the most popular, despite their dubious effectiveness. A one-day "gas out" was proposed in 1999, and a three-day-long event was called for in 2000, but both drew little participation and had no effect on retail gasoline prices because they were based upon flawed premises. This year's version is no different.

First of all, everyone's "not purchasing a drop of gasoline for one day" will not cause oil companies to "choke on their stockpiles." Oil companies run their inventories on a weekly basis, and since the "gas out" scheme doesn't call on people to buy less gasoline but simply to shift their date of purchase by one day, oil company stockpiles won't be affected at all.

Next, merely shifting the day of purchase will not "hit the entire industry with a net loss of over $4.6 billion." Consumers won't be buying any less gasoline under this "gas out" proposal; they'll simply be purchasing gas a day earlier or a day later than they usually would. The very same amount of gasoline will be sold either way, so the oil companies aren't going to lose any money at all.

By definition, a boycott involves the doing without of something, with the renunciation of the boycotted product held up as tangible proof to those who supply the commodity that consumers are prepared to do without it unless changes are made. What the "gas out" calls for isn't consumers' swearing off using or buying gasoline, even for a short time, but simply shifting their purchases by one day. Because the "gas out" doesn't call on consumers to make a sacrifice by actually giving up something, the threat it poses is a hollow one.

Not buying gas on a designated day may make people feel a bit better about things by providing them a chance to vent their anger at higher gasoline prices, but the action won't have any real impact on retail prices. An effective protest would involve something like organizing people to forswear the use of their cars on specified days, an act that could effectively demonstrate the reality of the threat that if gasoline prices stay up, American consumers are prepared to move to carpooling and public transportation for the long term. Simply changing the day one buys gas, however, imparts no such threat, because nothing is being done without.

Moreover, the primary potential effect of the type of boycott proposed in the "gas out" messages is to hurt those at the very end of the oil-to-gasoline chain, service station operators — the people who have the least say in setting gasoline prices. As such, the "gas out" is a punch on the nose delivered to the wrong person.

Gasoline is a fungible, global commodity, its price subject to the ordinary forces of supply and demand. No amount of consumer gimmickry and showmanship will lower its price in the long run; only a significant, continuous reduction in demand will accomplish that goal. Unfortunately, for many people achieving that goal would mean cutting down on their driving or opting for less desirable economy cars over less fuel-efficient models, solutions they find unappealing.

An event like a "gas out" can sometimes do some good by calling attention to a cause and sending a message. In this case, though, the only message being sent is: "We consumers are so desperate for gasoline that we can't even do without it for a few days to demonstrate our dissatisfaction with its cost." What supplier is going to respond to a message like that by lowering its prices?


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