Psst, Did You Hear About the Gasoline Shortage That Wasn't?

If we fear shortages of goods, then we overreact. We stand in long lines for day-after-Thanksgiving sales or elbow motorists for the last few drops of gasoline. It's the reason tulip mania ignited the world's first speculative bubble in the 1600s, Beanie Babies became a short-lived collectors' craze in the 1990s and countless stock market and bank runs sizzled and fizzled during the past century. Consumerism and the fear of running out aren't the same, but the speculative underpinnings certainly make them cousins and tell us a lot about what we value and why. Just before the Labor Day weekend, social media-fueled rumors unleashed the high-tech version of the game of telephone among motorists at gas stations across Texas. A motorist learns of a gas station with a plastic bag over the nozzle at the pump and tells friends of a gasoline outage. People who would otherwise comfortably drive on half a tank of gas feel vulnerable, and as the rumor spread, it became a reality. We do this to some degree just about every time a storm moves near the Gulf Coast. People race to the grocery store for extra food and water even though they live half a big state away. And when a storm forces a temporary interruption of fuel supply, it's treated as an apocalyptic event. So when vendors start jacking up the prices at the pump, the prophecy of scarcity becomes self-fulfilling.Yes, much of this economy runs on oil and gas. Petroleum products get us to work and to our kids' soccer games, and deliver the products we use each day onto store shelves. But human nature being human nature, breathless social media posts warning of widespread prolonged shortages were all it took for us to feel threatened.Had that panic not set in, had rational behavior reigned, had we listened to officials who tried to reassure us that gas delivery delays were temporary, gas stations would've been able to service customers without a problem. Factor in Labor Day weekend, when drivers hit the road for a traditional long holiday, and the rush to fuel up for travel created a brief hysteria.We are hunter-gatherers who depend on rumors often more than fact, partly because acting early on a rumor that comes true gives us a leg up on all those other hunter-gatherers. That is probably why we crave a stock tip when our gut tells us to be wary. And, as the recent gasoline hunt demonstrated, we will go to great lengths to preserve a lifestyle that frankly was inconvenienced for less than 24 hours. To those who filled up so they could enjoy the holiday or get to work, all power to you. But for the rest of us, was this craziness really worth it? What's your view?Got an opinion about this issue? Send a letter to the editor, and you just might get published.  Continue reading...

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