Many of the letters that reach my desk these days assign "the" blame for our gasoline shortage-as if there were a single explanation for the problem and a simple solution to it.
Here are one-paragraph samples from this week's letters:
"I think the whole thing is a conspiracy between the government and the oil companies. The Democrats want an excuse to impose rationing so they can hire thousands of new bureaucrats, and the oil people want higher profits."
"Before they start limiting me to less gas than is necessary to meet my minimal needs, I trust that somebody in authority will take a hard look at the millions of recreational vehicles, power boats and snowmobiles in use in this country. If you want to know who is to blame for the shortage, you don't have to look very far. It is the people who insist on recreation-as-usual, regardless of the shortage. I think Carter's explanation of his helicopter vacations was, to use his word, baloney."
"If they just had brains enough to check out the high school parking lots, they would realize where we can best begin to conserve gas. Instead of using their individual cars, high school pupils could use the school buses that already cost us so much money and fuel. I used to walk a mile each way, to and from school, and we lived in Minnesotal where the weather can be very trying during much of the year. I can assure you the exercise did us no harm."
"Would you please tell me why President Carter couldn't by executive order tell every retail store in the country to close on Mondays? People cound do the same amount of shopping in six days as they now do in seven, and this would save one-seventh of the gas they now use. Of course the business people would complain, but why couldn't it be done?"
"If our Energy Department was worth a damn it would have put on a crash program to develop solar energy and we would today be independent of the OPEC highwaymen. Instead, Schlemsinger has spent billions and has produced nothing but a nuclear power industry that operates as chaotically as a Chinese fire drill. Insufficiently trained people operate badly designed equipment."
"If gas is rationed, you can be sure the rules will not take into account the availability of mass transit. The person who lives on an in-town bus or subway line and the one who commutes from the boondocks will get the same allotment. How do I know? Because the solution to the problem will be in the hands of the same dumbells who created it - the government."
"I say this shortage has been manufactured by the oil producers, refiners and retailers to increase their profits. When gasoline reaches $2 a gallon, you will see the shortage disappear as if by magic. There will be plenty for everybody."
Don't be too sure. The OPEC nations have learned that they can sell us steadily diminishing quantities of oil without reducing their income. Each time they cut production, they jack up prices.
When the price squeeze began, the experts told us that alternate fuels could be produced but they wouldn't be economically feasible until gasoline hit the outrageous price of $1 a gallon. Now that gas prices are just about at $1, the experts say the alternative fuels wouldn't really be practical until gas reaches $1.50 a gallon. When gas gets to $1.50 they may say $2. Or $3. We can't be sure what the magic number will eventually be.
But you can bet that there is a level at which great changes will take place. When we reach that level, the oil producers will learn a basic lesson in economics.
They will suddenly find their monopoly shattered and the marketplace filled with alternatives. For the first time in years, they will again be competing for customers.
I'm sure it will happen some day, but I don't know when. If you live long enough, you'll find out, just as some of us lived long enough to see vast coal, and gas used for home heating.
In the 1920s, only the rich could afford to heat their homes with gas. The rest of us shoveled coal.
We kept on shoveling, and coal kept on rising in price, until one day people discovered that alternative fuels were cheaper and better and easier to use and caused less mess. The coal industry fell upon evil days.
This will happen to oil, too. If you know when it will happen and which alternative fuels will prove best, you can make a fortune.
Meanwhile, who is to say that $2 a gallon or any other specific price will mark the end of our gasoline problem? If the end is in sight, I need new eyeglasses. I don't see it. My crystal ball shows events taking place, but there is no calender in the background to tell me when they will happen.