What’s the real deal with gasoline prices?

This entry is part 10 of 25 in the series The Mythology of the Modern World

Today, we have a myth as suggested by a fellow who goes by Channing, who I know by a couple of other names but “Channing” works as well as any.

Channing asks:

What really is the deal with gasoline prices? Half the time there’s some kind of patent price-jacking going on to coincide with major travel weekends, but the other half it’s like they’ve got trained chickens selecting the price and then the media submits some kind of half-hearted unconvincing post hoc reason as to why they are what they are, either up or down. Who’s really at the switch? And what do they want?

Which is a pretty elaborate ‘question,’ but one I’m going to distill down to the following: what is the real deal with gasoline prices?

More as always after the break, but first, a note on the writing. The first couple of myths were fusions of essays (with digressions) and immediate stories (with digressions). These had their fans, but a number of people thought the combination made them too long and too uneven. And in the end, I am an entertainer, and if my spastic movements look more like a seizure than a dance, it’s time to go back to the soft shoe.

Last week’s myth was entirely story (with digressions), and it went over rather well indeed. This week’s is entirely essay (with digressions), and we’ll see how it does.

Please note, there will continue to be some essays and some fusions, as that’s how my brain works and some myths will require it.

Let me know what you think!

*** *** *** ***

Talking about the price of something in an economic sense is not the same as discussing the price of something, of course. In the world of myth and what-might-be, there are many prices that don’t increment in yen, in dollars, in euros, or in any other currency. The price of one perfect moment of love can’t be paid with a credit card. The price of a lifetimes of sunsets watched hand in hand with someone who understands doesn’t get discounted during the Christmas season. The price of one life can be paid in cash, but the cost is steeper than the purchaser might understand.

Naturally, when we look at the mythic world, the difference between the price of something and the economic price of something are clearly and sharply delineated. The prices of things have to be determined individually, but generally come down to will, to creativity, to sacrifice, and to pain.

The economic prices of things are creatures, furred with rocklike muscles, called mercants. Ranging from a foot in height to a towering nine feet, depending on the health of the mercant, they live in tribes or herds along the Mercantile plains that were named for them. And once upon a time they were left to compete and forage all on their own, with the strong competing and decimating the weak. This, naturally enough, led to inflation and scarcity for goods and services.

With time and the needs of mankind, a Locus rose up — as they often do — to see after the health of the mercants. This Locus was a man, handsome and charming, known by many names by many people. Some call him Adam, some Marc, some Mammon, some Alan. Regardless of what familiar name he might adopt with a given person, he is the Manager of the Economy, and his is the responsibility to ensure that young and small mercants have as much of a chance to thrive as possible while also making sure that the robust and healthy giants among the mercants are both allowed to exert their greater strength, maintain their greater health, and in general work together with the smaller mercants instead of eating them.

To that end, the Manager of the Economy climbed the great Mountains of Stored Value, and there he sought out the oreads that lived within — an oread being a nymph of the mountains and stone even as a dryad is a nymph of the trees or a neriad a nymph of the waters. One by one he courted oreads of gold, silver, copper and other metals today considered valuable, and he courted and seduced them, one after another, and sired upon them children. These children were a new kind of nymph, the numisma, and these first children were the so called hard numisma — children born of metal and stone and intrinsic value. They grew into fine women, strong and wise, and they spread through the herds of mercants, grooming them and cultivating them, spreading the will of the Manager of the Economy, preventing at least some of the violence, letting small mercants — representing the price of regional goods, of specialty items and niche products and the like — grow healthy and flourish, and helping the more powerful mercants work together to create a strong and healthy society.

And in the world, prices largely grew stable. A healthy mercant’s product price would reflect both the target consumer’s ability to pay and the producer’s ability to make a profit, which could then be turned to purchasing other mercants’ products, which in turn helped cultivate health and prosperity among all the herds.

And so the Economy grew and flourished, and some mercants became civilized, even as the numisma grew stronger. But as the mercants spread and grew stronger, the numisma found themselves struggling to keep up with the demand. Humanity’s ranks were swelling, and the hard numisma, as strong as they were, couldn’t keep up with all the products they were consuming and creating, threatening the health of the mercant society and the mercants themselves.

The Manager frowned when he realized this was happening. He loved his daughters dearly, and felt they were doing all that they could, but he knew that the day would come when they were overrun, and the mercants would descend into economic and very bloody anarchy. And so he met with his advisors, and with the numisma themselves, and they realized the only thing to do was increase the numbers of the numisma, letting the hard numisma become supervisors and regional managers and the like while a new generation took up the fieldwork in the Mercantile Plains.

And so the Manager met with his fellow Loci, and made arrangements and cut deals, arranging for his daughters to be mated to the sons of nations, which was an amazing set of parties and everyone had a good time. And some of the sons of nations married the numisad they had mated with, and others skipped town to let their lover raise their child all on their own, but the practical effect was the same — a new plethora of numisma — the fiat numisma — spread out onto the Mercantile Plains, leading to a new era of growth and prosperity among the mercant tribes.

And the hierarchy was well established for success. The Manager of the Economy turned his impressive capacity towards the ‘big picture.’ The hard numisma acted as fund managers and supervisors and regional vice presidents, coordinating the activities of their field workers in accordance with the wishes of their father and boss. And the fiat numisma, though not as powerful as their mothers, were versatile and plentiful and continued the work of encouraging and protecting smaller mercants while invigorating and working closely with the more powerful ones.

Which leads us to Thalea, daughter of the hard numisad of gold reserves and the son of the Potentate of the United States, fiat numisad of the American Dollar. One of the strongest and most adaptable of the numisma, Thalea cultivated servants and assistants who helped build a marketplace where mercants flourished. Mercants from other tribes and marketplaces would come and treat with Thalea’s marketplace, and the mercants of Thalea’s marketplace spread far and wide, cultivating relatives among other mercant tribes. The children of these mercants took solid root in other tribes, which is one reason you can buy a freaking Coca-Cola all over the world, but I digress.

Thalea worked hard. She wanted to prove herself to her mother. She wanted to help her father’s father’s lands flourish. She wanted to make her grandfather, the Manager of the Economy, proud of her. And so she eschewed friendships and days off and in general became known for passionate overwork to the exclusion of personal pleasure. Which might explain why certain American businessmen expect their workers to put in ninety hour weeks as a matter of course — a practice much of the rest of the world finds ‘stupid.’ But once again, I digress. The point is, Thalea was extremely hard working, but had almost no capacity for stress relief.

As with many of the more successful numisma, Thalea cultivated some of the strongest, wisest and most adaptable of the mercants to help out. So it was with Yonderoh, the mercant of Oil. As the stress increased, Thalea relied more and more on Yonderoh. And as Yonderoh’s own strength grew, he became more prominent — some said he was more important than any of Thalea’s advisors. Certainly, the numisad and the mercant spent a lot of time together. Often, they worked late into the night to get everything done, which is why we now have the phrase “burning the midnight oil” as part of our lexicon.

To you and me, it might seem natural that they would fall in love. After all, they are both creatures of myth, and there is something in us that thinks of myth creatures as one big happy dysfunctional family. However, to the numisma and the mercants, such a thing was the absolute height of scandal and unnatural practices. Consider — a nine foot tall midnight blue catlike creature and a five foot five slender green skinned, golden haired nymph who tended towards power suits. Not only did any kind of romance seem to violate all the laws of nature, there were logistical questions that seemed impossible to surmount.

But Thalea was nothing if not adaptable, and Yonderoh was understanding and kind, and so they made it work. And for a time they kept it secret, because this is the kind of thing you didn’t advertise.

Which was fine, until Thalea became pregnant. And if you’re wondering how two different species of creature could conceive between them, you should read more folklore.

The scandal was terrible, of course. But while the other numisma would have torn into the pair with the bloody help of the other tribes and marketplaces of mercants, Thalea’s own marketplace, her assistants and the strongest tribe of mercant on Earth made it clear that they were standing by the couple, and if they wanted a war, just bring it, buster — and remember the mercant of firearms was from Thalea’s marketplace while you were at it.

In the end, the Manager of the Economy effectively ruled for the pair by refusing to rule against them, and things settled down, though Thalea’s pregnancy was a complicated one.

Thalea gave birth, though it nearly killed her, and her marketplace closed in and fell into a depression. The date was October 29, 1929, and in the real world the near death of the numisma of the American Dollar was noted in one or two events that have achieved some notice.

The child… was not attractive. A ball of fur and stone and green bits here and there, the very sight of him was disturbing to all who saw. But his outer ugliness was belied by a sweet disposition. He wanted to help. He wanted to work. And with his birth came the birth of a product, marking him as more mercant than nymph. That product was gasoline. His name was Essad.

Essad grew quickly, his monstrous form well suited to many tasks, and throughout the marketplace Essad became a welcome, if ugly and foul smelling, addition to all that needed doing. And in the real world, gasoline spread across the American marketplace, bringing fresh fruits and vegetables by truck from warm southern climes to the north, bringing fresh meat to all corners from the huge slaughterhouses, creating suburbs and interstates and a market for spinning rims. Which yes, means that Essad, despite his ugliness, found his share of lovers and sired his share of child products. He worked closely with his half brother, the mercant of plastics, to make both products more accessible. And for quite a long time, all was well.

Though… some who were close to Essad’s parents noticed both numisad and mercant were often sallow and weak looking, and both relied more and more on their respective assistants and Essad’s other children in their day to day work.

Until the day Essad collapsed, out of nowhere. He had been walking along, and then he was on the ground, howling. His parents were summoned to where he was, and to the shock of all there they opened their veins on the spot, giving of their own blood for Essad to drink.

And slowly, Essad stabilized, but he was ashamed and weak, and in the world gasoline grew scarce and the price skyrocketed, reflecting his lack of health.

And so, the secret was out. Essad was strong and friendly and useful, but his hybrid birth had left him sickly, lacking certain elements necessary to survive. Elements that existed only in the blood of his parents. Or, as it turned out, the blood of fiat numisma and other mercants of oil and certain related mercants.

There was little to be done. The whole economic world — all the tribes of the mercants — had come to rely on Essad. He had to be kept as healthy as possible. But Thalea was strained, her ability to manage what was still the largest marketplace and tribe of mercants compromised, and Yonderoh….

Oh, Yonderoh. It hurts to even mention it.

The once powerful mercant of oil among the Americans had shrunk, his blood sacrificed to keep his child alive, leaving him a sallow shell. And while he could continue to do what he could to keep his offspring as healthy as possible, it was clear that soon enough others would be needed, if Yonderoh was to be kept alive as long as could be done.

And so, mercants of oil from far away tribes made their pilgrimages to the marketplace of Thalea, there to give of their own blood to keep Essad as healthy as possible. And the fiat numisma accompanied them, so that the blood of the numisma of rubles, of francs, of pounds and so many others were added. And slowly, Essad stabilized, though he was not as healthy as before.

In the meantime, Essad’s children had children, and the demand for Essad’s services only grew.

Some fiat numisma tried to encourage new mercants to fill the gap. Mercants of ethanol, of cars that ran on vegetable oil, of hydrogen cells and electrical batteries were sired among the mercants and encouraged to grow healthy and strong. But they were young yet and too many of the tribes needed Essad’s help now. And so he worked harder and harder, always willingly, but needing more and more of the precious blood of the fiat numisma and the mercants of oil to stay as healthy as possible.

Which, naturally enough, led to a new power on the Mercantile Plains. Because the mercants of oil recognized that without their sacrifice, Essad would weaken and die, and potentially take the full Economy with them. And so they formed pacts and alliances, and brought various fiat numisma with them, and began to exert leverage on the other mercants, regardless of tribe or marketplace. And tensions rose on the Mercantile Plains. After all, who could demand that mercants and fiat numisma give their blood to this monster, no matter how friendly or useful he might be?

And there were clashes between tribes, mercants striking at other mercants in ways they had not since the early days before the Manager of the Economy first ascended the Mountains of Stored Value. And the Manager is increasingly disturbed by all of this. It is becoming clearer and clearer to him that something new must be done. Something radical, possibly. After all, if the Economy had worth, it must survive.

And the price of survival can’t be paid for with money. It can only be paid for with work… and with sacrifice.

In the meantime, the world runs on gasoline. But as Essad’s health varies and the pact of mercants makes its demands, gasoline’s prices fluctuate wildly. Sometimes they descend, showing that Essad is healthier… but then they spike back up and people make noises of needing to utilize the strategic oil supply or find new sources or extract from oil based shale and the like, but we know the truth. Essad is trying. He really is. But as much as he’s grown, he is sick, deep inside, and there will come a day when all the blood of all the mercants of oil and their attendant fiat numisma won’t be enough to keep him alive.

The question is, will he take the rest of the Mercantile Plains with him?

And if they go, what happens to us?

The price of survival is work, and is sacrifice. And like it or not, the Manager of the Economy is going to do what needs to be done to keep the Economy alive. And if that means bad things for you and for me, then that’s what it means.

I don’t like that any more than you do, but I only report the myths, and they don’t always have happy endings.

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9 thoughts on “What’s the real deal with gasoline prices?”

  1. For those wondering about names, Thalea comes from Thaler, the German word and coin that eventually became ‘Dollar.’ Yonderoh comes from John D. Rockefeller, the industrialist and philanthropist who largely created the modern petroleum industry. Essad comes from “Esso,” the chain of gasoline stations that Standard Oil — Rockefeller’s company — founded (and which eventually was broken up by antitrust laws, giving rise to “Exxon.” Though in Canada, Esso stations are still everywhere).

  2. I like it. Good use of an Aesop at the end, and very good symbolism. Gasoline as a pitiful, foul-smelling, vampiric entity is perfect. (Especially since it was considered a waste product of oil refining at one time…)

    Though I have to wonder about that dream last night: I’m driving out in the middle of nowhere, running on fumes, and there’s an unnamed gas station. I stop only to find that their gas is over $7 per gallon. Right across the road is an Exxon, with a relatively normal $3.149; I make the obvious choice in the dream, despite loathing Exxon (I usually aim for a Citgo or Irving).

    Then I get to work, load up this page, and lo, there is this story. Strange coincidence.

  3. Marc refers to the Archangel of Trade in In Nomine. I’m not truly invoking In Nomine here in the Mythologies, but you’re going to see the occasional nod because… well, because.

    Alan was a nod to Greenspan, yes. He’s spent a few years as one of those economists everyone’s actually heard of, so it seemed appropriate, even if the face of a charismatic manager has changed somewhat with time.

  4. The use of “sallow” twice in such a short piece without it being a catchphrase took me momentarily out of the story.

  5. Faeries or no, this is actually a better explanation than the media regularly provides.

    “Which leads us to Thalea, daughter of the hard numisad of gold reserves and the son of the Potentate of the United States, fiat numisad of the American Dollar.” is a beautiful sentence in its own right.

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