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Al Martinez

Go Fourth and Honor the Gougers

July 02, 2001|Al Martinez

Welcome to the week of July Fourth. A time of flags. A time of drums. A time of bugles. A time of being robbed once more by gouging, profiteering oil companies. God bless America.

Or is it the oil companies?

I've been researching the problem, and now I'm not sure. I mean, it could be the farmers in Iowa. Or the environmentalists in California. Or the sheiks of Araby. Or old squinty-eyed Dubya back there in Dee Cee.

In fact, I don't even really know that we are paying more for gasoline today than we were, say, 10 years ago. I realize it may seem that way to you, but then you're not adjusting your thinking to take inflation into account.

Anyhow, that's what they're telling us.

In other words, you're paying less today for gasoline than you were in 1990, even though you're paying $1 a gallon more. That's because, over the years, everyone has been screwing you and everything has gone up. Knowing that, do you feel any better, bubeleh ?

I wasn't feeling too great the other day when I discovered that I needed to fill up the old Camry, until I saw a gas station sign that said regular was only $1.91 a gallon! Wow! Only!

I made a quick U-turn and was filling up when I suddenly realized that I was the victim of an insidious oil company psychological plot. It works this way: They jack the price up to $2 a gallon, threaten you with the possibility of a $3 price tag, then lower the price to $1.91. You're so pleased to see that it's under $2 that you drive away happy, forgetting that last week it was only $1.50.

Gotcha!

I've been agonizing over this ever since, and now is a good time to bring it up. That's because 36.6 million Americans will be hitting the road on July Fourth.

Some say that in honor of the day, gasoline prices will go up. Others that prices could go down but that shadowy forces are keeping them up to continue the American tradition of holiday price-gouging.

As I looked into the question of why gasoline prices were rising, I discovered a deep well of many who could be to blame. It's like falling into a pit filled with cobras, black widows, violin spiders and deadly scorpions and wondering which one killed you. Maybe they all took a little bite. For instance: Gasoline prices are higher in California because of our strict environmental laws, so it's the tree-huggers' fault we're being gouged.

President Bush wants to add price-raising corn-based ethanol to gasoline to profit Midwestern corn farmers because they're important in next year's Senate race. So it's the farmers' fault, and the Republicans' too.

Bush is also refusing to repeal the 18.4-cents a gallon gasoline tax to help us consumers, so it's his fault again, and probably mostly.

Legislators drag their feet when it comes to clamping down on the oil companies, because politicians survive through the generosity of oil company money, so it's their fault.

It's the fault of refineries that deliberately lower production to drive up prices; stock brokers who manipulate gasoline futures; the courts for refusing to go after the oil companies; and the media for bringing all of this damned bad news to everyone.

One expert warns that it's not over yet. Rolling blackouts could offer yet another excuse for refineries to produce less, thereby jacking the prices up to as high as $5 a gallon.

"It could get really ugly," the expert says. Another adds, "There's a lot of paranoia going on."

I've got news for both of them. It's already ugly. And the fear that they're after us isn't paranoia. They are after us. We know we're getting screwed. We just don't know how or by whom. The spokesman for a group that represents gasoline retailers reports incidents of gas pump rage: screaming at cashiers, abusing equipment and throwing nozzles on the ground. Then he laments: "They're taking it out on the wrong people."

But who are the right people? That's the question. As in the case of the Black Dahlia, we may never know who did it. Or, in this case, who's doing it. Two centuries of American capitalism have created a sly breed of profiteers, and there's more on the way. But, hey, if we're stuck with these guys, why not celebrate them on this greatest of all national holidays?

I have a modest proposal. Let's create an award of the Golden Screw (Serving Certain Rotten Ends Wondrously) for the company that displays the greatest ingenuity in getting at our money through various questionable ploys.

Contestants must be ruthless in their quest to wring every dollar out of us. They must be deaf to our pleas and complaints. They must be able to control our courts and our legislators. And they must be experts at blaming others for their own crimes of greed.

The company that wins will not only get the Golden Screw but, having been identified by its own corporate ego as legally liable, will also be dismantled and its chief executives sent to prison. But since they were just doing business the American way, their sentences would be minimal. Maybe five years each. But adjusted upward, of course, for inflation.

*

Al Martinez's column appears Mondays and Thursdays. He's at al.martinez@latimes.com.

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