Price Gouging Your Eyes Out
I am going to start this week’s TRUTH: In 1000 Words or Less with a traveler’s advisory for all frequent drivers of the I-70 mountain corridor outside of Denver, Colorado: Don’t stop for gas at the Conoco station located just off the exit for Copper Mountain. You’ll know which one I’m talking about because it’s the only gas station at that exit. The gas prices there are a full dollar higher than prices at other competing gas stations in nearby Frisco or Silverthorne, each of which have a number of convenience store options. It’s seriously ridiculous. I don’t usually even really notice gas prices, but when I went to pump gas there, my eyes looked up at the price sign, and I just about crapped my Levi’s. I put the pump away, got back into my car with a huff, and drove off without a word.
“What the hell are you doing?” my girlfriend asked incredulously.
“Did you see how much they were charging for gas?” I responded, clearly irritated. “That’s preposterous. I’ll get off in Frisco and get gas there instead.”
“I hear ya, but does it really matter?”
“It’s a matter of principle,” I insisted. “They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that.”
She seemed shocked by my reaction, “Get away with what? They should have the right to charge whatever they want.”
At this point, it was time for me to get up on my soapbox and defend the little guy consumer like only I and Ralph Nader can, “They’re taking advantage of people who get off there and don’t realize how expensive the gas is. It’s called price gouging, Amy, and I think it’s utter b.s. that they get away with it.”
My girlfriend, however, was having none of it, “They have a choice, don’t they? They can go get gas somewhere else if they so choose.”
“True, but what if they were almost out of gas? This is the only gas station in Copper, so you’d have no choice but to fill up here.”
My girlfriend merely rolled her eyes at me. I must admit that happens a lot. “It’s only 5 miles to Frisco, Steven. If they are driving around in the mountains and let their tank get down that low, don’t you think that’s kind of on them?”
As usual, she had a point. Nonetheless, I was disgusted by the whole episode and preferred to take my business further on down the road, as the Conoco still felt vulturous to me. Few things bother me more than when businesses artificially spike prices in order to avail themselves of the ignorance or unfortunate circumstances of their potential customers.
As a skier, I see this on a regular basis. Knowing that skiers at their resort have no other competing food options, ski areas hike up cafeteria prices in the lodge to levels even residents of New York City and Alaska find shocking. Now, I have no problem watching them charge more to cover their added costs for delivery and food preparation on the side of the mountain, much as you would expect a store located in the heart of the chic downtown shopping district to have higher prices to recoup the added expense of renting property in that locale, but my friend once had a BBQ sandwich and a Coors at Breckenridge, and the bill was $25. Yeah, that why I always bring a PBJ in my backpack.
Of course, the proposition is even more nefarious w
hen it involves people who are truly in dire circumstances. I remember back in 2004 when Hurricane Charley ravished the Florida town where my mom lives.
While she fared much better than most, my mom had significant roof damage and had to have it repaired as soon as possible. Numerous contractors tried to charge her double what they normally would have simply because they knew these folks were in desperate need of their services and that there was too much immediate demand to provide ample competition to drive prices down. In other words, sometimes the natural processes of supply and demand, free-market economics is thrown out of balance by unnatural occurrences. And it is in precisely these occurrences and situations where government must intercede to right the ship and keep it moving in a direction that benefits all.
Earlier this year, as Hurricane Irma seemed poised to wreak havoc where my mom lives, she lamented the prospect of having to once again deal with outrageous bills from contractors should she encounter any property damage from the storm. She decried the inevitable price gouging that goes on in such cases, noting how greedy these “s.o.b.’s” (her term, not mine) were. The only problem is that my mom is an avowed “The Market fixes all ills” capitalist, the kind of FOX News viewer who gets down on their knees in nightly prayer thanking the good Lord above for bestowing upon them the great gift of laissez faire economics, as though it was fire being given to them by Prometheus himself. But as I tried to point out to my mom, you can’t say you adhere to that whole “Market as God” theory and then cry foul when it goes haywire and someone uses it to their benefit while you get caught holding the bag.
So be wary when folks talk of “less government regulation” rather than more, for this should be the true functioning of a healthy representative democracy- using regulation to protect the general public good against the rapacious interests of those who might exploit a vulnerable population while no one is guarding the hen house. Don’t let them convince you that all regulations are bad and hurt business, for the vast majority of these regulations are there to protect against the unchecked avarice of business doing you wrong. The free market is a remarkable economic engine, but it has to be monitored and steered lest it go careening off the rails. Just don’t get gas for that engine at the Conoco at Copper Mountain.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com