Column: A little perspective, and effort, can ease gas-price shock

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 30, 2003

Let me start by saying that I like money.

This fondness for money means I usually want to keep as much of mine as I can, and naturally I don’t want to pay any more than necessary for the things I buy.

That means when gas prices go way up, like they have recently, I’m a little annoyed. Filling up on gas already seems expensive, and when prices go up, I have to part with even more money. I mentioned that I like money, right? Right.

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But you will have to pardon me if I don’t get into the frenzy some people do about gas prices. Sure, I look at the signs just like everybody else and note which stations have the best deals, and when there’s a big spike or drop in prices, I certainly take note of it.

I just have a few problems with the gas-price-complaining thing that’s all the rage these days. They include:

– Is $1.75 per gallon really a high price for a commodity that’s usually pumped out of the ground on the opposite side of the earth, sold by countries who make a concerted effort to control prices to their advantage, refined, and shipped many miles before it reaches the local gas station?

For comparison’s sake, think about bottled water. A 20-ounce container of Evian or some other rip-off bottled water is about a buck, right? That means a gallon of water goes for more than six bucks at the same convenience store where people complain about $1.75 for a gallon of gas.

Yes, this is water we’re talking about &045; two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen, the stuff that covers three-fourths of the Earth’s surface, which you can get for mere pennies out of your tap whenever you want it. (Incidentally, that bottled water you shelled out for is more likely to have come from a tap somewhere than from the mountain spring pictured on the bottle.)

Do people complain about water prices? No. Quite the opposite &045; sales of bottled water are growing faster than those of any other convenience beverage in America today.

– People act like they have no control over how much gas they consume, like it’s a fixed expense that we all just live with. So they get mad when they see the price go up for no apparent reason, because they feel powerless to do anything about it. Making matters worse, nobody can really explain why the price goes up, which makes a lot of people suspicious about the real reasons.

But the fact is that people are not powerless. It’s actually possible to drive less, or to purchase a vehicle that is more fuel-efficient, or drive 65 instead of 80 on the freeway and save gas that way.

&uot;No!&uot; you scream. &uot;I can drive as much as I want! I can drive whatever kind of vehicle I want! This is America! It’s my right!&uot; Yes. You are correct. But you also have the right to pay for your decision about what to drive and how much to drive it.

It’s not like I’m some kind of Geo-driving, bike-riding example for all to follow. But our family does have a flexible-fuel vehicle, and we make a conscious effort to fill up on E-85, which is made mostly from ethanol and is cheaper than conventional gas. This is a choice we have made that helps ease the cost of driving &045; as well as cutting pollution and reducing the demand for imported gas.

The point is not that everyone should be like us. The point is that people can make choices that make gas prices easier to take. But I guess complaining is just easier.

– It’s always kind of annoying when we Americans, who have it so easy in so many ways, complain about something that’s actually much worse elsewhere in the world.

The fact is that we cry when gas prices approach $2, but in Europe, for example, high taxes on gas have some people paying double that to fuel up their cars. That has led to more demand for mass transit, and many more people use modes of transportation like trains in those countries.

So, as much as I dislike parting with more money during times like these (did I mention I like money?), gas-station clerks can breathe easy when I walk in. I’m not going to yell at them over gas prices.

The price of Aquafina, on the other hand, might get me a little riled up.

(Dylan Belden is the Tribune’s managing editor. His column appears Sundays. E-mail him at