Don’t laugh at Ore­gon too much

National Post (Latest Edition) - - ISSUES & IDEAS - Colby Cosh

We all had a good chuckle at the ex­pense of the state of Ore­gon this week, af­ter its leg­is­la­ture passed a law al­low­ing for the ex­is­tence of 24-hour self-serve gas pumps in the sparsely pop­u­lated eastern part of the state. Ore­gon had been — as some Cana­dian trav­ellers doubt­less well know — a stub­born reg­u­la­tory hold­out against the 50-year tran­si­tion to self­ser­vice gas sta­tions.

KTVL, the CBS tele­vi­sion af­fil­i­ate in the city of Med­ford, polled its view­ers on Face­book about the change, and some of the crankier an­swers went vi­ral. ( It should be pointed out that the new rules do not ap­ply to Med­ford proper, which has too many peo­ple and is too far west to be cov­ered by the law).

“I don’t even know HOW to pump gas and I am 62 ...” wrote one an­gry Ore­go­nian. “I say NO THANKS! I don’t want to smell like ga­so­line!” An­other swore a vow of civil dis­obe­di­ence, tes­ti­fy­ing that “I had to (pump my own gas) once in Cal­i­for­nia while vis­it­ing my brother and al­most died do­ing it.”

Of course, it’s im­pos­si­ble to know how many of these com­plaints are le­git­i­mate and how many come from pranksters. I’m guess­ing the per­son who wor­ried about get­ting “cooties” from a pump han­dle that “50 other peo­ple have touched that day” is real, though. (Do you sup­pose he pays for gas with ban­knotes?)

When we are done laugh­ing at the fright­ened denizens of eastern Ore­gon, we should think about look­ing in the mir­ror. How many of us are re­ally free from su­per­sti­tions that stop at a state, pro­vin­cial, or na­tional bor­der be­cause they orig­i­nate with non­sen­si­cal le­gal pro­vi­sions? In the spirit of ap­ply­ing the prin­ci­ple to my own peo­ple first, I might of­fer Al­berta’s lack of re­tail sales tax as an ex­am­ple.

Al­berta re­tail­ers have had the costs of col­lect­ing the fed­eral GST for decades now, and most economists would like to shift some of our tax bur­den from i ncomes to con­sump­tion. But the es­tab­lished economies of Al­berta bor­der re­gions are or­ga­nized around a zero- per- cent PST, and Al­ber­tans every­where take an inane chau­vin­is­tic pride in it. (“I had to buy lug­gage once in Man­i­toba while vis­it­ing my brother and al­most died do­ing it ...”.)

It is eas­ier to spot these cul­tural ar­ti­facts of leg­is­la­tion from the out­side, and I am will­ing to bet that they could be col­lected for ev­ery province in Con­fed­er­a­tion. Prob­a­bly the one I notice most of­ten as an Al­ber­tan is the Ore­gon- style way in which On­tar­i­ans de­fend govern­ment liquor re­tail­ing. And, as CBC news pointed out, we have our own “eastern Ore­gon”: Self-serve gas is de­fi­antly out­lawed in the B.C. mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties of Rich­mond and Co­quit­lam.

In the lat­ter city, the rule against self- serve gas is de­fended as a j ob- cre­ation mea­sure. By now, if you read the Post, you should be hear­ing the cho­rus of economists say­ing “Jobs are costs” in­side your own head with­out my help. We could def­i­nitely cre­ate a lot of new low-wage jobs by for­bid­ding peo­ple from cook­ing their own meals or clean­ing their own bath­rooms — which are tasks that mid­dle-class peo­ple paid ser­vants to per­form when the mid­dle class was, not coin­ci­den­tally, much smaller than it is now.

Of course life seems to have been slightly love­lier when you didn’t have to get out of your car to fill it with fuel, as­sum­ing you imag­ine your­self in that lost world as a mid­dle-class car owner. That is the essence of many of the “ar­gu­ments” for lowwage job cre­ation by fiat: nostal­gia for the ex­is­tence of a servile class to which one would never one­self be­long.

The true mir­a­cle is that most of us, in most places, are in fact al­lowed to pump our own gas. Surely this is the real ef­fect of the whim­si­cal eastern Ore­gon story — to make us grate­ful that the 1970s en­ergy cri­sis hap­pened early enough to pro­vide price in­cen­tives for rea­son­ably fast tech­no­log­i­cal change, at a time when en­vi­ron­men­tal para­noia had not de­vel­oped enough to make it im­pos­si­ble. The text of the Ore­gon gas sta­tion bill talks of “us­ing and ma­nip­u­lat­ing a de­vice” for “dis­pens­ing Class 1 flammable liq­uids.” Stated that way, it def­i­nitely sounds like some­thing you would want to leave to a trained pro­fes­sional in a HAZMAT suit.

If self- serve gas pumps were in­vented in 2018, the Green Party would not need more than 30 sec­onds to find stud­ies show­ing that ga­so­line vapour is a prob­a­ble car­cino­gen, at some dosage. ( Just about ev­ery­thing is. But just to be safe, I checked, and the stud­ies are there, all right.) The can­cer card, played this way, does not re­ally con­sti­tute a valid ar­gu­ment — but you will see anal­o­gous ar­gu­ments made five times this week if you are a newspaper reader.

Taken on its own terms, and seen from the stand­point of a world with self-ser­vice, it is prob­a­bly a bet­ter ar­gu­ment for let­ting ev­ery­body pump gas oc­ca­sion­ally, as they have need of it per­son­ally, rather than hav­ing some teenaged flunky do it all day in all tem­per­a­tures with­out res­pi­ra­tory pro­tec­tion. But don’t tell the city of Co­quit­lam that.



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