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Gas Station Attendants
Jobs are not always good jobs
Only New Jersey remains. Last month, HB2426 was signed into law by the governor of Oregon. For the first time since 1951, Oregonians will be able to, wait for it, pump their own gas! Now that Oregon has joined 48 other states and callously disregarded all the dangers that come from allowing the untrained masses to pump their own gas only the Garden State has trained experts dispensing gasoline.
Or is it? Because while Oregon now allows drivers to pump their own gas, the law comes with a series of requirements that are clearly designed to stymie driver freedom. First, at least half of all pumps at a gas station must be full-service. Second, if the gas station is open at least one employee must be available to pump gas at the full-service pumps. Third, the gas station cannot charge extra for full-service.
So while residents the Beaver State can pump their own gas, the law is sending mixed messages. The restrictions are galling. Gas stations should be allowed to be self-service, full-service, or a mix of both. A pump attendant shouldn’t have to be on duty 24 hours a day. Drivers who want full-service should have to pay extra for the privilege. Hopefully HB2426 is just the first step, and in several years Oregon will trust drivers and gas station owners to make the decisions that are best for them. For as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
What about New Jersey? So far they have shown no signs of ending this insane status quo. In 2016, then-governor Chris Christie said, “We polled this over and over. The last poll we did on this question, 78 percent of New Jersey women said they were opposed to self-serve gas. 78 percent! You can't find 78 percent of people in New Jersey who agree on anything!” Subsequent governors have also demurred. Thus far, no one seems to be willing to touch the surprising third rail of New Jersey politics.
Having more than three-quarters of New Jerseyans agree on an issue is indeed surprising, but it provides a great example of the difference between what economists call stated vs. revealed preference. Stated preference is what people say that want or like on surveys. It has its uses, but talk is cheap. Someone can easily say they care about saving the whales, but it’s a costless assertion. Revealed preference, on the other hand, relies on watching what people actually do.
The gap at times between stated and revealed preference can be massive. Survey 100 people about whether they would shop at a Walmart or on a main street, and the vast majority will say the latter. Yet when a Walmart opens up, the parking lot fills and main street is left desolate. That’s the difference between stated and revealed preference.
I suspect that the gap is similar in the New Jersey poll. If 78 percent of New Jersey women say they won’t use self-serve gas, then if self-serve gas is legalized businesses won’t offer it. Some spots on the highway that cater to out-of-state drivers certainly will, but those in rural New Jersey (which contrary to popular belief, does exist) will not.
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The experiences of the other 48 states, however, tell us otherwise. People prefer to pump their own gas, at least to the extent that they won’t pay extra for full-service. In nearly two decades of driving a car I think I’ve come across one full-service station outside of Oregon or New Jersey. Full-service stations barely exist, even though every gas station was full-service until the 1960s.
Why does New Jersey insist on keeping drivers in their cars? Jobs. Thousands of New Jerseyans are standing at gas pumps this very moment, waiting to provide a useless service. If self-service pumps were allowed, almost all of them would be out of a job within a year. This provides a useful illustration of a common misconception. When a new law creates new jobs, those jobs should often be labeled as costs, not benefits. New Jersey gas station attendants provide no value, they just raise the costs for everyone else to buy gas.
The gas station attendant debate brings to mind a famous economics anecdote. In the 1980s and overseas, Milton Friedman was surprised to see a contingent of construction workers using shovels instead of machinery. He asked his government host while shovels were being used when machines could do the job so much more effectively. The government employee replied that having the workers use shovels creates more jobs. Milton Friedman then asked, “Well if it’s jobs you want, why not have the workers use spoons instead of shovels?”
It’s a funny story, but not something that should be applied to America today.