Are People Rational About Gas Prices?

As a preface, I am not a socialist planner, so I do not presume to make other people's economic trade-offs for them.  If someone out there chooses to collect Pinto station wagons or pay $10 million to go on a Russian space launch, power to them.

That being said, I will observe that gas price concerns seem to drive people to do things that they would not normally do in other contexts.  Market Power quoted this statement from the Washington Post:

"When prices go up, you're going to see some interesting things," said Tom
Kloza, chief analyst for the Oil Price Information Service in New Jersey.
"Saving money on gas is something that's just magical in this country. Rational
thought just doesn't apply to gas."

Market Power was skeptical that such irrationality exists, but I think it may be correct.  Here are a few examples:

1.  Waiting for hours:  A couple of years ago when I lived in Seattle, a local Costco put in a gas station and sold gas for 10-15 cents or so below most of the other local stations.  Every time I went there, there was a huge line -- perhaps half an hour long -- to get gas.  For a fifteen gallon fill-up saving 15 cents and waiting 30 minutes, that equates to $4.50 an hour savings for their efforts, not to mention the extra driving time (and gas!) spent getting to this one spot rather than their local station.  How many people in the line would have driven an extra 10 miles to take a job at $4.50 an hour? 

Lately, I witnessed a free gas promotion where people lined up and waited at least 3 hours for 10 gallons for free gas (people apparently had lined up starting at 4AM for the promotion that began at 8AM.  This is a bit better deal at $10 per hour, but I wonder how many people in the line would have participated in any other endeavor for $10 an hour?  Market Power points to a similar promotion in Sioux Falls, where the value of police time providing security was probably higher than the value of the gas given away.

2.  Save a dollar, pay three extra.  One of the reasons I am unconcerned with gas price gouging is that many gas stations today use gas as a loss leader, hoping to pull motorists into their store or restaurant.  In the language of gouging, what this means is that typically you are getting a great price on gas (given what the dealer's costs are) and are getting gouged on coffee and Twinkies.  Its amazing to me that people who check the Internet to find the place with 5 cents a gallon cheaper gas will then walk into the convenience store and pay whatever for Cokes and water and cigarettes and beer and coffee.  It seems crazy, but the best way to explain it is that for a number of people, a dollar saved on gas gives them far more satisfaction than say a dollar save on soft drinks.

3.  Wagering with the rental car company.  Every rental car company offers you a wager nowadays.  They give you the chance to buy the whole tank of gas in advance for something like 20 cents less than the local market rate.  Assume the local market rate is $3.20, the rental car advance rate is $3.00, and the tank is 15 gallons.  All you have to do to win this bet as the renter is to return the car with less than 1 gallon left.  If you do, you win, otherwise you lose.  Is this a bet you want to take?

But I left something out - the value of your time.  Let's say you value your marginal time at $30, and it take 15 minutes to fill up the rent car yourself.  By taking the fuel option, you save $7.50 of time.  This means to win the bet, including the value of your time, you have to turn it in with less than 3.5 gallons left, or less than 1/4 full.  The other alternative is to not stop and turn it in at the rent car place and let them fill it up at their $6.00 rate.  But even this ridiculously inflated rate for turning the car in part-full is still a better option than the pre-paid fuel as long as you don't use more than half a tank.   And I bet that the vast, vast majority of people who rent cars, particularly on business trips, don't use a half tank (a half tank at 20mpg is about 150 miles).

One of the best tests of my proposition is to see how many businesses
today act as if this gas-price-overfocus is a real phenomenon:  Car
dealerships give away free gas rather than rebates;  many many
companies are having free gas promotions;  gas stations continue to
sell gas at cost to get you in their store.  Basically, businesses
everywhere are betting that their customers will find $30 of gas more
appealing than any other $30 giveaway. 

None of the above bothers me particularly -- people are different and interesting in how they act.  That's why government planning tends to chafe everyone.  In fact, the only part of this supposed irrationality about gas prices that does bother me is the fact that so many people run to the government for price controls and gouging investigations whenever gas prices go up, and so many Congressmen of both parties see value to pandering to these instincts.  This despite the fact that gas prices are still effectively far lower as a percentage of income than they were 25 years ago.  I wish they would all go back to sipping their $8 Starbucks coffees and just deal with it.

Update:  Was on Snopes.com checking out an email that seemed like an urban legend (it was) and saw a sidebar listing gas wars as the #1 urban legend email of the moment.  ExxonMobil seems to be the bad-guy target-of-choice, I guess just because they are the largest.  The "idea" in the email is that if everyone would boycott ExxonMobil and shop at other gas stations, the price of gas would fall.  LOL.  As Snopes points out:


A boycott of a couple of brands of gasoline won't result in lower
overall prices. Prices at all the non-boycotted outlets would rise due
to the temporarily limited supply and increased demand, making the
original prices look cheap by comparison. The shunned outlets could
then make a killing by offering gasoline at its "normal" (i.e.,
pre-boycott) price or by selling off their output to the non-boycotted
companies, who will need the extra supply to meet demand. The only
person who really gets hurt in this proposed scheme is the service
station operator, who has almost no control over the price of gasoline.

  • http://www.humanadvancement.net/blog Kyle Bennett

    One thing to remember when comparing the $/hour rate of money saved vs the $/hour rate of money earned, is that the money saved compares to pretax money earned (unless the thing you save on is tax-deductable, or the pay is under the table), so saving $10.00 nets you more than going out and earning $10.00.

    And, on the other side, don't forget the gas used idling in line.

    Not that it affects the point you're making all that much - I'm sure nobody in those lines has even thought to try the calculation.

  • http://politics.lel-hosting.com/ Matt

    Gasoline is the only thing one buys where even the terminally lazy can do price-comparison before they make a purchase, because the prices at every station are advertised in numbers big enough to read from the road at the prevailing speed of traffic.

    Make it easy for the intellectually lazy to do something, and you'll find more intellectually lazy people doing it. (For the record, I wouldn't drive to Indiana to buy my gasoline if I didn't smoke. The tax-induced price differential of a carton of cigarettes between Hammond and Chicago is enough to make the gasoline essentially free. That I'm saving on gas as well is just a cool bonus.)

  • http://www.halfsigma.com Half Sigma

    And talking about XOM again, it was a HUGE mistake for those two firms to combine. I don't see the operational synergies, but being so huge sure has made the company a target for lawmakers.

  • http://rennysvoice.blogspot.com Renny

    Petrol costs money, lots of people don't have much money. There are solutions in the sky