Pelosi announced herself ``particularly concerned'' that the highest price of gasoline recently was in her San Francisco district -- $3.49. So she endorses H.R. 1252 to protect consumers from ``price gouging,'' defined, not altogether helpfully, by a blizzard of adjectives and adverbs. Gouging occurs when gasoline prices are ``unconscionably'' excessive, or sellers raise prices ``unreasonably'' by taking ``unfair'' advantage of ``unusual'' market conditions, or when the price charged represents a ``gross'' disparity from the price of crude oil, or when the amount charged ``grossly'' exceeds the price at which gasoline was obtainable in the same area. The bill does not explain how a gouger can gouge when his product is obtainable cheaper nearby. Actually, Pelosi's constituents are being gouged by people like Pelosi -- by government. While oil companies make about 13 cents on a gallon of gasoline, the federal government makes 18.4 cents (the federal tax) and California's various governments make 40.2 cents (the nation's third-highest gasoline tax). Pelosi's San Francisco collects a local sales tax of 8.5 percent -- higher than the state's average for local sales taxes.
Pelosi and others who just know, evidently intuitively, the ``fair'' price of gasoline must relish what has happened in Merrill, Wis., where Raj Bhandari owns a BP gas station. He became an outlaw when he had what seemed, to everyone but the state's government, a good idea. He gave a discount of 2 cents per gallon to senior citizens and 3 cents for people who support local youth sports programs.
But Wisconsin's Unfair Sales Act requires retailers to sell gasoline for 9.18 percent above the wholesale price. The state's marvelously misnamed Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has protected consumers from Bhandari's discounts by forcing him to raise his prices. Some customers now think he is price gouging.
Some Wisconsin legislators are considering changing the Unfair Sales Act to allow retailers to discount gasoline to benefit things those legislators think should be benefited. In Madison, Wis., as in Washington, D.C., it is considered eccentric to think that government should butt out, let people buy and sell as they please, and let markets equilibrate.
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