A bill in search of a conscience

Marketplace Staff Jun 8, 2007
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A bill in search of a conscience

Marketplace Staff Jun 8, 2007
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KAI RYSSDAL: Sliding oil prices helped out on Wall Street today. Crude was off more than 3 percent. The Energy Department says gas prices have fallen about a nickel or so in the past week. Small solace, I know, when it still costs 40 bucks to fill a 12-gallon tank on a compact car. Congress feels your pain, though. The House has passed a bill that would outlaw “excessive” price gouging. Whatever that is. Here’s commentator Jeff Steinbrink.


JEFF STEINBRINK: Just before Memorial Day the House of Representatives voted two-to-one to make it illegal to charge “unconscionably excessive” prices for gasoline. The phrase “unconscionably excessive” is actually part of the bill, and legislating against that sort of behavior hardly amounts to heroic action. Compared to the 1977 energy program that Jimmy Carter called “the moral equivalent of war,” this is more like the moral equivalent of hacky-sack.

The bill implies that plain, old excessive price gouging for gas is OK. Only when the excessiveness becomes unconscionable does the law kick in to protect us. It’s as if Congress were to declare to pickpockets that ordinary pickpocketing is fine, but they’re not allowed to turn us upside-down and shake us by the ankles to free our loose change.

I’ve had experience of a system like this. In my junior high school, teachers were so afraid of the full-on ninth-grade thugs that they let them get away with all manner of excessive outrageousness, trying to stop them only when things got, let’s say, unconscionable. It took Jim Hammerman standing on his desk, swinging a heavy chain and taunting our mustachioed language arts teacher, Miss Wagner, to bring on some official push-back. I can tell you, this is no way to live.

Whose conscience, anyway, is going to determine when gas-price excessiveness gets unconscionable? Certainly not the consciences of the gas producers themselves. Not the consciences of congressmen either.

I’d volunteer my conscience but it’s been so battered by my own excesses that high-priced gas would pass through it like a sieve. We certainly want a gasoline industry with more self-restraint than I’ve got. “Go ahead and gouge us excessively,” our representatives in Congress plead. “Just don’t gouge us unconscionably.” Those gas guys, though, hear the jingle of loose change in our pockets. They won’t be happy until they’ve turned us upside-down.

Ryssdal: Jeff Steinbrink is a professor of literature at Franklin and Marshall College.

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