NEXT WEEKEND brings Labor Day, the end of summer or, as the oil companies used to call it, the end of the "driving season." This driving season there were no lines at the gas stations. On the contrary, gasoline stocks were and are abnormally high. Why?
The answer is: the price. Gasoline has got more expensive, and people are using less of it. Two years ago, gasoline cost about 67 cents a gallon. Now it's close to $1.30. Two years ago, the country was burning up 325 million gallons of gasoline a day. This summer, it's using about 285 million gallons, a saving of roughly 2 gallons per week for each car and truck.
It's true, by the way, that gasoline consumption has never again been as high as it was in June 1979, the month when the gasoline lines were at their longest and most gluey. The lines didn't disappear because the supply increased. They disappeared because people bought less.
In the mid-1970s, there were occasional suggestions to the effect that it might be a good idea to let gasoline prices rise to enforce conservation. The response was always a chorus of denunciations and objections, to the general effect that gasoline was a necessity of life. It was more than that -- it was a supernecessity. It was no different from food or shoes or shelter or even the automobiles that used the gasoline. Unlike all of those things, gasoline couldn't be left to the hazards of rising prices. Gasoline prices had to be controlled -- held down by law to guarantee that people could afford it. They needed it, according to their congressman, to get to work and to keep the American economy alive. But now the price is up, despite the best efforts of Congress, and people have discovered that they can in fact get along with a little less. It's occasionally an inconvenience. But civilization seems to be surviving. For that matter, the shopping centers and the tourist industry also seem to be surviving.
Despite the current gasoline glut, prices are unlikely to go down. They will depend essentially on the amount that foreign governments choose to produce, and that amount is very probably going to decline over the coming year. Meanwhile, here in the United States, the government is gradually taking the price controls off crude oil. That adds about two cents a gallon, every month, to the price of oil. Prices will fluctuate, but all the basic trends still point up. Nobody greatly enjoys paying more for gasoline. But it's better than sitting in line.