Gas prices — who’s in charge?

I used to work for a company that tried to treat its employees fairly — perhaps too fairly, management argued, even though the union insisted not fairly enough.

This was during the Age of Corporate Enlightenment before the Reign of Terror erupted in 2008. We believed every worker had the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of a hefty Christmas bonus and a free massage at his desk.

For example, when the cost of fuel was pushing $4 a gallon, this company went so far as to sell gas to employees at the price it paid. The company got a reduced rate from the supplier, and the CEO wanted to pass that savings on to the workers. He could have made money off of us and used it for executive bonuses, but he was an honest man.

The price the company charged stayed the same, which means to say it wasn’t like the local gas station, where the price seems to change day to day.

In the era of traditional business practices — before bait-and-switch and the various unsavory tactics you encounter nowadays — things were much different.

The independent gas station owner usually got out there with a ladder to put the new price on the sign, and it seldom changed. Now, it seems the price of gas is determined by the day’s headlines. If there’s a story that says some analyst expects prices to rise — voila! — the prices rise like voodoo. It’s worse than Vegas. (Prices took a nose-dive in recent months, and my personal theory is that a Transcendent Power was punishing Big Oil for excessive profit-taking.)

In recent weeks, however, prices rose about 30 cents. How is that possible? What law of physics or economics or price gouging or supply and demand causes something like that to occur? Was there a tremor in the markets because Tom Brady deflated footballs or American Idol was cancelled?

Does a troll in the commodities exchange say, “#%@**! I drank too much Patron last night and have a splitting headache. Gas prices are gonna rise, America!” Or “#*@#!$!, my girlfriend dumped me — everyone’s gonna pay!” Or maybe some CEO or sheik had a bad day because their underwear were too tight so their misery trickles down to the masses.

The office of corporate gnomes sends out a tweet to the gas stations nationwide, “Attention, Earthlings! Raise prices five cents a gallon or you and your loved ones will be vaporized!” The next thing know, just as you’re pulling up to the pump, the price goes up a nickel.

But you have to wonder, “Isn’t that the same gas that was in the tank yesterday when I drove by? Does Bernie Madoff own this station?”

I’m convinced that some actuary with a degree from MIT developed a formula for price gouging that increases profits 40 percent if you change the price every other day.

New York Post business columnist John Crudele recently offered his interpretation of events: “Spread a rumor, get the price up. It’s a game that Wall Street plays. And since the financial community is a big contributor to political candidates, there is nothing Washington is going to do to stop this nonsense until there is a massive public outcry.”

He added, “Wall Street wants energy prices higher, and our elected officials aren’t willing to stop the manipulation. … The average American’s gain over the past year, when oil prices dropped by 50 percent a barrel and gasoline by more than $1 a gallon, is Wall Street’s loss.”

It makes you wonder what would happen if the price of Wonder Bread or toilet paper changed every day. We Americans, being a thrifty people who learned the virtue of frugality from our Pilgrim forebears, would stop eating bread and using toilet paper. But we can’t stop using gas, so we’re stuck between a rock and an oil rig.

On the other hand, we should look on the positive side. Maybe our trained elected officials can take a lesson from the marriage of Big Government and Big Oil and solve the state budget crisis by manipulating tax rates day-to-day based on, say, the barometric pressure, the governor’s mood or UConn’s point average.

You’d buy furniture or appliances on Monday and the sales tax would be 6.35 percent, but by Friday — SURPRISE! — it’s 8.25 percent. This roulette form of taxation would add excitement to the lives of weary consumers and help our elected officials raise revenue in new and creative ways.

Contact Joe Pisani at joefpisani [at] yahoo.com.

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