Relief From Painful Gas

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The most painful conversation I keep overhearing — other than "I'm getting into the elevator now. You're breaking up" — is the one in which people complain about gas prices. It has become such an incessant whine that the Senate set up an entire subcommittee on how to fix the problem, taking away valuable time Senators should have spent trying to woo James Jeffords with hookers.

Now I know it's surprising to see a different gas price every time you stop at a Texonobil. It's not like every time you go to Safeway, jujubes jump up or down 50%. But that probably explains why there aren't billion-dollar multinational conglomerates that drill for jujubes. Though, to be honest, I think that would be a wonderful world.

But when we signed onto this capitalist thing, we were briefed on the supply-and-demand part. We seem to accept massive fluctuations in the stock market, real estate and the popularity of John Travolta. But for some reason we think gas should always cost the same amount, plus 0.99 of a penny. Basically, I think the price changes depending on how much was drilled that day and how many former Miss U.S.A.s are suing the Sultan of Brunei or his brother for sexually enslaving them. There's a math formula for this.

I don't know how society decides what things cost. I have no idea why dvd players are so cheap and house paint costs so much. Salt used to be worth a lot of money. So did Amazon. com. It all has to do with an invisible hand, which sounds like something I was pretty sure I was going to get away with when I went to see a movie with Jackie Tudor in eighth grade but actually explains capitalism. My failure with Jackie is best explained by the foolish choice of Beverly Hills Cop II instead of Dirty Dancing.

When gas was selling at $1 a gal. two summers ago, we didn't make Strom Thurmond pretend to hear people testify about that. We were happy, running through gasoline-spewing sprinklers and drinking gasoline wine in a gasoline haze. And like the ant in the fable about the ant and the bug that wasn't an ant, we should have been saving. As I learned the hard way, though, saving hundreds of gallons of gas in those little red plastic containers in your parents' garage isn't the safest way to launch your investing career.

Do you have any idea what gas costs in Europe? Me neither, because my tightfisted editor wouldn't send me to Europe to find out. Also, they charge in liters there, and I still have no idea how much that is — which, much like the gas problem, may be Jimmy Carter's fault.

Yes, I feel bad for people who have to drive to work and can't afford higher gas prices. But we have to understand that in a capitalist system, there are times when things get hard and we have to cut back. Remember sugar rations in World War II, or last Christmas when there weren't enough PlayStation2s to go around? We got through that, and we'll get through this.

There is, however, the possibility that my attitude may all have to do with the fact that I don't own a car.