One of the more intriguing results in Thaler’s The Winner’s Curse is the idea that people have an idea of “fair” pricing. The common example is splitting $10 between two participants—Player 1 splits the amount between the two, though both have to agree to the respective amounts in order to actually receive the money. Theory dictates that Player 2 should accept any non-zero amount (as it’s money that they otherwise wouldn’t have)—but in practice, if the amount is viewed as insultingly low (say, $0.05), then Player 2 will reject the bid in Seinfeldian spite and no one gets anything. Evidently, people care not only about their relative values for goods, but about others’ respect of those values.
I can’t help but to think that this is at least partially related as to why people are so upset about paying “too much” for gasoline. People value gasoline at its current price—after all, they are at the pump getting mad—but they remember paying less, and somehow the price increase is insulting. It’s popular to point the finger at oil companies (after all, they have big ships that hurt baby seals), OPEC and natural disasters, but this points to another explanation. As the EPA continues to levy regulation upon regulation, prices continue to rise—and the government is obviously not going to blame itself for the discontent of millions.
It raises an interesting question—who is doing a better job of keeping gas prices high: OPEC, or the EPA? I don’t think either of these are the primary reason as to why gas prices have climbed to their current level—nonetheless, I’d love to see a paper on that topic. OPEC’s effect, I’d imagine, has probably been subject to a Harberger-related estimation. The EPA causes higher prices directly via quality controls, but also introduces a whole host of public choice-related inefficiencies. I’d suspect that the EPA has a rather sizable effect on gas prices. Extend it from the EPA to the entire government and gas taxes could be added in as well.
Higher demand causes higher prices—but so does regulation. The finger should point in that direction too.