Gasoline as a market lubricant

The other day I bought a package of moldy bread at the supermarket. There’s a lot of print on the label, and some of it hid the mold.

But then I decided not to take it back, because the cost of gas for the roundtrip to the store would have been about as much as the price of the bread. And we don’t go to the supermarket more than once a week because, hey, gas is expensive, so there’s no picking up a few extra items and returning it on the way.

So the store won’t find out their supplier is sending them moldy bread, and the supplier won’t find out something is wrong with their production and packaging line. And I’ll be cutting back on my grocery shopping, because if the bread I’m buying is going to be moldy, I might as well bake some myself.

Which is really not an economically efficient use of my time, but neither is driving back and forth to the supermarket to exchange moldy bread.

I’ve been hearing lots of similar examples of this: contractors who don’t want to bid on jobs that are too far from their home base, employees who blow off meetings in another town because the hourly pay won’t even cover their gas and so forth. It’s not just that higher gas prices make the product and services we buy more expensive, they make them worse because the cost of operating an efficient, well-informed market has just gone up.

Eventually everyone will adjust. People will check their purchases with a fine-tooth comb before they leave the parking lot. Employers will get used to covering more of travel costs if they really want employees to attend off-site meetings. Technology will come to the rescue, so that I can just email my grocer a picture of the moldy bread and get a credit the next time I go shopping (or a business will use more conference calls, or people will get used to paying more for a non-local contractor). But in the meantime, for want of a nail…

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