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At the Pump: Down with Gas!

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MILWAUKEE -- At exactly 12:01 p.m. on Saturday, November 15, 2008, I saw something I was sure I'd never see again in my lifetime.
I saw a "1" as the first digit of a gas-station sign.

That's right: Gasoline -- good old American, straight-from-the-Persian-Gulf-or-somewhere-just-as-scary gasoline -- at under $2.00 per gallon.
Just a hair under $2.00 -- $1.99.9, to be precise, at the Citgo station about a mile from here -- and that last "9" in the tiniest of type, as it always is, in the hope that we'll simply ignore it.

And then, at 1:25 that same afternoon -- less than 90 minutes later -- at a Citgo Express station just down the block: Gas was going for $1.98.9.
And it was definitely going. All four pumps were occupied, and there were cars and vans out into the street, waiting their turn at the cheap stuff.

Just think of it: Gas at a dollar-something a gallon. (Even a dollar-and-almost-another-dollar-something a gallon.)
It was amazing. Incredible.

Where's the disco ball? Where's the leisure suit?
On Saturday morning, it had been $2.05 at the same Citgo Express, and $2.11 at a BP station across the street. On Friday, the BP had been $2.17. Any time now, it's bound to drop to $2.09, and then $2.02, and then...
Gas prices in free-fall -- it's like watching the stock market!

And all this just days after ExxonMobil reported making it through the third quarter with a measly $14.83 billion in profit, a new record.
(I'll pause for a moment, so that all of us who used words like "obscene" to describe ExxonMobil's third-quarter numbers can pass the hat to help them get through these tough times.
That didn't take long.)

If this new trend keeps up --
That's the question, isn't it? Will this new trend keep up?
I'm perfectly willing to believe that gas prices are down because of the worldwide economic slowdown. I'm perfectly willing to believe the logical, straightforward, supply-and-demand explanation -- rather than, say, believe that there's some nefarious price-manipulation conspiracy being carried out by
a) the oil companies; or
b) the oil-producing countries; or
c) the SUV Appreciation Society
to drop gas prices so low that alternative energy sources suddenly seem like a bad bet. So low that smaller, more fuel-efficient cars -- let alone hybrids -- suddenly seem beside the point.
I'm willing to believe it. I'm even willing to be happy about all the extra money I'm keeping in my wallet with every tankful.

And I still know it can't last.
This is the fluke, right now -- not the four-dollar-plus gallon we were buying just a couple of months ago. The four-dollar-plus gallon is the future -- unless there's a five- or a six-dollar gallon already oozing toward these shores.

We can start singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" if we want to, and let Detroit off the hook when it comes to new, higher mileage standards. We can ignore what the rise of China and India are eventually going to do -- unless they do it even sooner -- to the competition for fossil fuels, and the price of same.

Gas prices are down -- it's party time! Let's roll!
We can say that. Of course, we can also have a big picnic out on the lawn when the eye of the hurricane passes briefly overhead.

All it takes is a hearty appetite, and a good-old-American willingness to forget that the rest of the storm is still headed our way.

Rick Horowitz is a syndicated columnist. You can write to him at rickhoro@execpc.com.