The world's whiniest consumers


So let's look around and see whom we can blame for rising gas prices. There's China, selfishly buying up oil for its own mushrooming fleet of cars, with no consideration at all for American drivers. Iran is burnishing its axis-of-evil credentials by making vague threats about destroying its economy and cutting off its own flow of oil to world markets. Hugo Chávez…well, he's buddies with Castro. That's all anybody needs to know about him. Detroit has been forcing us to drive big gas guzzlers for years, and the nefarious oil companies just sit there and…make money!…as demand for their product outstrips supply.

Wait, there's somebody missing from this list of villains: How about—us?

American drivers have been coasting on cheap gas so long that it has become an entitlement. The price of petrol in most of the developed world is much higher—in places like Korea, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, it's more than twice as expensive. That's mainly because of higher taxes. And just as expensive gas in foreign countries has helped foster efficient public transportation and breakthroughs in fuel efficiency (it's no accident that the first hybrids were developed in Japan, by Toyota and Honda), cheap gas in the United States has engendered a way of life that revolves around big, personal people movers. If gas prices doubled or tripled tomorrow, we'd still be piling kids, dogs, and gear into the SUV for soccer games, driving hours to Grandma's, and tailgating out the back of a vehicle big enough to fit the picnic table and the barbecue grill both.

So when pump prices cause pain, we complain as if our whole way of life is at stake. And instead of telling consumers the obvious thing–they should buy more-efficient cars if they want to spend less on gas–politicians and national leaders feebly explore rebates and tax cuts and oil-company windfall taxes and other ways to act empathetic. This reminds me of parents who can't say no to an insistent child, for fear of hurting his feelings. So they develop schemes and bribes and trickery to get the child to eat his vegetables, take a bath, and get into bed. Yet in real life, there's nothing they'll be able to do to make the rest of the world treat him with such deference.

There's practically nothing the government can do, either, to lower gas prices. In fact, the U.S. government has already done a remarkable amount–and spent a heckuva lot of taxpayer money–to keep gas prices low. Like funding a robust military, for instance, that helps shore up oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia and keep sea lanes safe for transport in the Persian Gulf and other tense areas. Economist Joel Kurtzman of the Milken Institute in Los Angeles estimates that when you include such "externalities," gasoline actually costs American consumers more than $10 a gallon, including the tax dollars that go toward defense and other things. The U.K., next in line, spends only about $7 per gallon. Some economists think Kurtzman's estimates are high, but few argue with his essential point: The retail price of gasoline in America is already artificially low. Americans who press for subsidies to make them even lower are arguing against the very laws of supply and demand that supposedly govern the free enterprise system that's the basis for our economy.

With so many gas-guzzling cars on the roads, Americans are particularly sensitive to pump prices. But we complain about lots of other stuff, too. Last year, I interviewed John Mullen, CEO of DHL Worldwide Express, the courier service, who has worked in Asia and Europe and is now based in the United States.

"In the rest of the world, people don't complain as much," he told me. "You really have to upset a customer before they complain. Here, if you're a day late with one package…I get E-mails, letters addressed to my home, complaints to the board back in Germany." There are times when Americans have good reason to expect a high level of service, of course–we often pay for it, for one thing. And insisting that the trains run on time is one of the things required to keep business humming efficiently.

But anybody who has listened while an indignant diner sent back a meal that wasn't cooked quite right, or a shopper moaned about waiting in line for five minutes, knows that we have an epidemic of complainers in America. And it's likely to get worse. Here are a couple of the things I'm waiting for:

  • If long-term interest rates keep rising, it will probably end the rapid appreciation of home prices, along with the wealthy feeling so many Americans enjoy these days.
  • The Chinese currency, the yuan, is almost certainly going to rise in value over time–which will make practically everything at Wal-Mart more expensive.
  • We've gotten used to homes that add to our wealth literally overnight, as well as manufactured goods like clothing and DVD players that have become so cheap we don't even budget for them. If it turns out we're not as entitled to those luxuries as we think, whom will we blame next?

    --Rick Newman