Don’t laugh at Oregon too much
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.