Running on Fumes
These are people who are continually juggling rent and food and medical bills, who tap their resources days before the start of a new pay cycle and routinely resort to credit card debt and other borrowing to weather the lean times. How, then, can the volatile oil market not be hurting them? People like Rosie Kerr who are already spending a disproportionate amount of their income on gas face a burden far in excess of that experienced by middle-class consumers, who spend only 3 to 5 percent of their money on fuel. Moreover, in regions like Siskiyou County, where everything has to be delivered over long distances, as gas prices soar so, too, does the cost of other goods.
"Where I used to deliver free all of my printing jobs, I can no longer do so," explains 59-year-old Lyle Sauget, a Yreka print shop owner. "If it's local, I charge $1. If it's Mount Shasta or Weed, it's $5 to $7. Fuel is affecting everything. Food. Clothing. Everything's gone up. When they [locals] are already on a tight budget, it makes it pretty difficult. It takes an already depressed area and takes it down. As a business person, at a certain point you say, 'I'd rather go work for someone out of the area than be a business owner.'"
Sauget, a tough-looking Republican whose storefront is bedecked with an enormous Bush/Cheney poster and whose display case boasts certificates of appreciation from the local branch of the Army Recruiting Command, is hardly the type you'd expect to hear denouncing oil companies. But ever increasing gas prices have him looking for answers. "I'd urge Congress to put a ceiling on these extreme profits," he states, his face red with anger, his hand in a fist. "Price caps. They've got us by the short hairs, and if we don't turn this around we're never going to get out of this. I support basic Republican ideas, but I've always been of the opinion that you must control the corporations. If the corporations control you, you're in big trouble."
In a place where small houses rent for as little as $300 to $500 per month, some people, says Castle Crags Chevron station manager Nick Demarco, are likely spending more on gas these days than on rent. An average fill-up, not too long ago, would have been $20 to $40. Now, Demarco calculates, "it's $50 to $80. That's considerable change. People are still buying the same amount of gas, and buying less of other stuff to make up for it."
Kerr now changes her own oil and tries, as best she can from reading a few car maintenance books, to give her Explorer its tuneups. "I can't afford to go downtown to have someone else do it for me," she explains. "I've thought about selling some of my stuff. I have some antique radios from my grandmother. I've been putting that off for a year now. I can't fill my tank. I haven't been able to fill my tank in a year or two. I do $20 here, $20 there. I do without food to get gas, pretty much regularly. There's never any breakfast. Nobody eats breakfast in my house. My mom feeds me lunch after she gets off work. Maybe two times a week we go without dinner. Eat nothing. My boss was nice enough to let me cash in some vacation time last month, so I had enough to buy some groceries."
In a nutshell, Kerr's experience shows up the fallacy of the laissez-faire notion that free-floating prices alone are a fair way to regulate consumption of a scarce commodity like gasoline. While higher prices might stop some tourists from driving up to Castle Crags and might curtail the discretionary gas use of the middle classes, as long as people live in regions like Siskiyou County and commute to far-away jobs in places that are hard, if not impossible, to reach by public transportation, these people are going to need gas. And as long as they need gas simply to continue working, they are going to do whatever it takes--short-changing themselves on food and medicine, charging the gas on credit cards, deferring car repairs or upgrades to better, more fuel-efficient vehicles--to keep their tanks full. After all, entire communities and lifestyles and job choices and consumption patterns have been crafted over the better part of a century on the basis of cheap and plentiful gasoline. Suddenly change the equation without offering any government relief and, even though gas remains cheaper per gallon than in much of the rest of the world, the relative difference will prove disastrous.
Instead of demand for gas immediately responding inversely to rising prices, in places like Yreka demand will likely remain stubbornly resilient until the point of economic collapse, when it will become unfeasible to borrow any more to pay for gas and residents will simply have to up their stakes and leave. Paradoxically, it is even conceivable that the higher prices might, at least in the short term, lead to more rather than less demand for gasoline in places like Yreka.