Saturday, March 28, 2020

Gas prices

So I drove by a gas station in Madison the other day selling regular unleaded for less than $1.70 and I thought: could it be that gas is actually cheaper now than it was when I first started buying it after I inherited my grandmother's 1964 Plymouth Valiant as a high school student in 1977?

According to the Gasbuddy website there are actually cheaper gas prices in Madison than at the station I saw. The lowest it lists as I write is $1.29 per gallon. The lowest price I ever paid - I remember explcitly thinking that I was unlikely to ever pay a lower nominal price than I did that day - was $0.299 per gallon. According to the "U.S. Inflation Calculator" something with a price of $0.30 (it rounds) in 1977 would have a price of $1.28 due solely to inflaction. Astounding.

Some issues:

1) I am ignoring the fact that the 1977 price observation was in the Seattle suburbs and not in Madison. I expect that Seattle is nearer a refinery and so might have had lower prices for that reason.

2) I also have no idea about the relative gas taxes in Washington State and Wisconsin in either 1977 or the present, which one also might want to think about as part of a more serious exercise along these lines.

3) There are multiple ways to adjust for inflation and they can tell very different stories. I do not know which one the web site I used relies on. I expect the qualitative point to be similar though.

4) Hard to imagine that essentially no change in the real price (inclusive of taxes) over that time period is really optimal given the intervening changes in what we know about the externalities associated with carbon emissions.

5) Gas prices are presently at a transitory low due to conflict among suppliers plus reduced demand due to the pandemic. In Madison they have fallen by more than fifty percent in a few weeks. Still.

6) It is a testament to something that even though it would be hard to imagine a less cool car to drive in high school than a 1964 Valiant, it was still much cooler to have any car than to have no car.

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