The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the pain of high gas prices hits so hard in the Midwest

A gas station in Rolling Meadows, Ill., on April 1. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
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Over the past several weeks, thousands of people have lined up in their cars on Chicago’s streets for an irresistible offer: free gasoline. The largesse has come from attention-seeking business owner and erstwhile politician Willie Wilson. He had vowed to keep doling out the fuel, at $50 per customer, until he’d spent $1 million — but after two sessions the giveaway had reached $1.2 million, and Wilson, who is contemplating challenging Mayor Lori Lightfoot next year, hinted at funding a third.

Local police were left unprepared for the initial traffic jams caused by motorists’ determination to snag the free fuel. But their excitement wasn’t hard to understand. If Chicagoans are so eager for free gas in my old hometown, with its extensive rapid-transit options, consider what it’s like elsewhere here in the Midwest (I live in Ann Arbor, Mich.). We largely lack the public transportation of big cities, and devising adequate infrastructure for supporting electric vehicles is still mostly a dream. We rely overwhelmingly on our gasoline-powered vehicles to get everywhere.

Much economic data can seem dry and dull, something nerds sift and everyone else checks only on occasion. But if you use an automobile, there is one economic indicator over all others that rules life, as the Biden administration is well aware.

Gasoline is a necessity. It isn’t a $5 Starbucks latte that we can skip. When the price of gasoline goes up, the effect is a shrinking paycheck. Inflation is hitting throughout the economy, but rising gas prices are where millions of Americans really feel it.

It isn’t like at the start of the pandemic, when people stocked up on toilet paper and boxes of dishwasher soap. You can’t stock up on gasoline — although I did once meet someone who lived in remote northern Michigan, and who had his own gas storage tank, because the closest pump was 30 miles away.

And it isn’t like when you buy groceries and notice that the price of butter seems like it might have jumped a dime since a few weeks ago — hard to be sure. With the price of gas, you see it in glowing letters, seemingly every few blocks or highway exits.

People zealously check apps such as GasBuddy and compare prices at the Sunday dinner table, leaning in conspiratorially to share the location of their cheapest source.

Eugene Robinson

counterpointHigh gas prices hurt, but they’re an opportunity to make good choices

It wasn’t that long ago that as the indicator in my car dropped toward “E,” I said goodbye to the last drops of a $3.19-per-gallon fill-up at Costco, knowing the next purchase might be nearly a dollar more per gallon.

I was wrong: I paid $4.39. Knowing you’re almost running on fumes makes you do desperate things. I felt foolish when I later met a friend for dinner in Dearborn, about 30 miles away, and spotted gas for a mere $3.99. (The average for the metro Detroit area is $4.19, according to AAA, or about $1.47 more than people here paid last year.)

Lately, gasoline prices have dropped a little nationwide, to an average of $4.37 a gallon, but anyone familiar with the refining process knows that the switch is coming from winter gas to summer, when prices always go up.

And that’s even without the uncertainty over oil and gas prices in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The United States isn’t a big customer for oil from Russia, but Russia is one of the world’s largest suppliers, and now sanctions have cut off much of that supply.

No wonder President Biden stepped in last week to announce that, over the next six months, he would release 1 million barrels a day from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. That’s the biggest release in the reserve’s 50-year history.

The goal is to compensate for the loss of Russian oil on the global market and at least slow the rise of gas prices for U.S. consumers — if bringing down prices isn’t possible. Experts say the move is unlikely to significantly affect gas prices because 1 million barrels a day represents just 5 percent of Americans’ daily oil consumption.

The president and his advisers, of course, are also paying attention to some other numbers: his miserable popularity ratings.

Do I blame him for all the pain at the pump? No, but I can understand why other people do. When something so central to modern life as the price of gas hits us in the wallet so hard, we want our leaders to fix it, and fast — even if that’s an unreasonable expectation. The president’s announcement might ultimately turn out to be a fruitless gesture, but I’m glad to know he’s worrying about it. Everybody else is.