Scott Sumner  

A blind spot at the New York Times

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The New York Times recently published a very strange story on New Jersey, discussing the Garden State's ban on self-service gasoline. The article discussed a recent proposal to lift the ban (all other states allow self-service), as well as local opposition to ending the ban. So what makes the article so strange?

It turns out that none of the information in the article has any bearing at all on the policy issue being considered. The author (Jonah Engel Bromwich) wrote the article as if the proposed policy was a complete ban on full service gas pumps. Here's a typical example:

[T]he university found that 63 percent of voters supported the law [banning self service] and only 23 percent opposed it, with a similarly exaggerated gender gap.

Ms. Jenkins grew up in Southern California, and pumped her own gas.

"But," she said, "in the dead of winter when you don't have to get out of your car, it's a lovely feature of living in the state."


When I lived in Massachusetts, I typically used self-service in the summer, but enjoyed the "lovely feature" of going to one of the dozen or so full service stations near my home during the winter. Ms. Jenkins seems to share the NYT reporter's misapprehension that New Jersey is proposing that full service stations be banned. I don't know of any state that bans full service.

Some conservatives will invariably grumble that the NYT is a lousy newspaper, full of fake news. I'm afraid it's far worse than that. The NYT is a great newspaper, one of the best in the world. The fact that a story like this could appear in such a high quality paper speaks volumes about the way that they look at the world. I'm pretty sure that about 99.9% of libertarians would have immediately seen the point I am making in this post. Why didn't the NYT's excellent editors immediately see the problem? What sort of a blind spot do they have, when it comes to giving people the freedom to choose how to run their lives?

PS. Just to be clear, the question of whether self-service gas should be banned is not the subject of this post, so please don't offer your opinion on that subject in the comment section.

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Update:
Based on some comments, I added a map showing full service stations near my old house in Boston (actually Newton). I used to go to the Sunoco, BP and R.S. Gas stations just a few blocks from my house. I realize this is less true of places like California, but keep in mind that New Jersey is an older, affluent, densely populated state like Massachusetts, with cold winters. And 70% of NJ residents prefer full service.

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CATEGORIES: Liberty , Regulation




COMMENTS (29 to date)
Dan Hill writes:

I'm not defending the NYT or its worldview, but I think the problem is broader. There are people in this world who want the rest of us to cross-subsidize their preferences by banning alternative models. I doubt many of the opponents of self-service gas stations really misunderstand what is being proposed. In fact I suspect they are cannier than you give them credit for. They know that most people are happy to save a few cents a gallon to pump their own gas, and that those preferring full service would be forced to carry the additional cost across a much smaller customer base. They are the same people who complain about airlines breaking out ancillary fees. "If you don't (indirectly) charge that guy for the checked bag he doesn't have, I'll have to face the real cost of checking my bag."

Sol writes:

To be fair, out here in small town Michigan, gas stations which still offer full service are few and far between. It looks like a fifteen minute drive from my mom's house to the nearest. In general it looks like once you get out of the cities, unless you're lucky it's probably about 3-5 times further to the nearest full service as it is the the nearest self service.

So allowing self serve may be (in the long run) a significant nuisance for those who prefer full service.

(That said, while I remember full service from my childhood, the only time I've ever used full service as a driver was in states that forced me to, and it honestly made me fairly uncomfortable.)

Patrick writes:

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Brian writes:

Scott,

As a resident of PA, right next to NJ, I can say that full service is all but impossible to find. I can't even remember the last gas station that even offered it. Convenience store chains never do unless required. So maybe they all assume, the NYT included, that self-service will crowd out full. That's been my experience.

Mark writes:

I think Dan Hill is right and it's about cross subsidies. Outlawing self-serve increases supply of full-service. If people are allowed to make different choices, the availability of one's preferred choice may decline.

In any case, I think perhaps you overestimate the editors (NYT editors or editors in general); I remember last year when they had to correct their 'gotcha' piece on Gary Johnson because it erroneously ddescribed Aleppo as the capital of Turkey... then had to correct the correction, which erroneously described the city as ISIS's capital. The main point being newspapers publish a lot of material every day, and they want to get it out as quickly as possible; it's probably not worth the time and effort to have a system that eliminates every error.

It's also possible that "giving people the freedom to choose how to run their lives" isn't something the NYT editorial staff cares much about, particularly on economic issues, and doesn't consider this to be an error. I mean, if, say, someone enthusiastically favors forcing some people to buy a medical service they don't want in order to cross-subsidize the purchase by someone else who does want it, why not apply the same logic to gas station service?

al-Ghazali writes:

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Laura writes:

Scott:

In NJ, the cost of full service is less than 1c/gallon. This is because the cost of the attendant is amortized over all of the gas pumped. This addresses the free loader problem. In the other states, an attendant is mandated for safety but the cost of the attendant is borne by the full service users exclusively.

The attendant should be paid for by the government as a public good but most states foist the burden of this safety measure on the price insensitive elderly who cannot exit their vehicles easily or whose health would be impaired by the cold.

NJ by wide acclaim of the electorate retains the regulation to place the burden of safety (attendant on duty) with all consumers.

E. Harding writes:

"Some conservatives will invariably grumble that the NYT is a lousy newspaper, full of fake news. I'm afraid it's far worse than that. The NYT is a great newspaper, one of the best in the world."
It's also a lousy newspaper full of fake news. It's sad that standards in the press are so low, but it's true.

They may be assuming that "everything not forbidden is compulsory."

john hare writes:

Laura,

Need to check your numbers on the $0.01 a gallon cost. A $10.00 an hour attendant will cost about $15.00 an hour with taxes, insurance and overhead. At your $0.01 a gallon, they would need to pump more than 1,500 gallons an hour, every hour. That is not allowing for any margin or profit. An attendant costs as much an hour sitting around waiting for customers to show up as when handling maximum traffic.

I will trust myself over a random low wage employee with my vehicle. I was one of those low wage attendants for a couple of months several decades back. Some of the mistakes I remember making are unbelievable to me now.

Dylan writes:

As others have pointed out, in every state that I've lived in that allows self service, full service stations have gone the way of the buggy whip, you can still find one I imagine if you look really hard, but not something I'd ever come across in my day to day activities. That being said, I'm with Sol and the experience of full service stations leaves me fairly uncomfortable. I'm not going to sit in my car while someone else pumps my gas, so I invariably stand next to the guy shivering in the cold and making small talk.

Also, Oregon to the best of my knowledge still doesn't allow pumping your own gas as a general matter. At the beginning of 2018 they did make an exception for self service in certain rural counties, but you're still going to pay for someone else to do it in Portland.

Todd Kreider writes:

From March 12, 2011, the NY Times put out tons of articles about the Fukushima nuclear acident in Japan that went completely counter to what health physicists around the world had been saying: there was no radiation risk to the general public.

I'd look people up who were mentioned in aticles including a Japanese "radiation" expert who turned out to be a vetenerain. But there were far more egregious examples with respect to 18 months of ridiculously hyped "reporting." There was no science in these articles and editors were no where to be found. Hardly an "excellent paper."

Rock27 writes:

@all the commenters saying that it's hard to find full service in states that allow both: what does that tell you about demand for full service?

Colin Barnard writes:

Scott,

Maybe you just don't notice similar issues in the rest of the paper. You've seen this issue in an article based on your knowledge set and interests. Perhaps you don't have enough knowledge on the other topics in the paper to notice these same types of glaring errors or misrepresentations.

For example, I grew up in a rural area, my father in law is a farmer, I've worked for 2 different agriculture companies, two of my brother-in-laws work for ag companies. I feel like I have a pretty good handle on ag policy and issues. I don't remember ever reading a NYT article on agriculture that didn't have a glaring error or omission supporting some policy preference. Be it about GMO's, pesticides, corn subsidies, sugar tariffs... I just assume that the rest of the paper contains the same level of error.

There probably is a term for assigning confidence to a source based on testing that source's knowledge in an area where you yourself are competent. But I don't know what that would be.

Though I agree with you Scott. That in the end the NYT is a great paper, and the problems I find aren't as large as with some other sources.

Scott Sumner writes:

Everyone, My experience was that you can hardly drive 6 blocks in Massachusetts without coming across a full service station. I'm sure NJ would be no different, as it's also a densely populated northeastern state with cold winters. Perhaps people are confused by the fact that lots of stations offer both services.

Polls show 70% of NJ residents prefer full service; do you honestly think gas stations would be too dense to cater to that huge market? I think some of the commenters here are not thinking clearly.

As far as cross subsidization, that would be like favoring the banning of grapefruit on the grounds that older people don't like the sour taste, and prefer oranges. If grapefruit were banned then some land used to produce grapefruit would switch over to oranges, reducing oranges prices and cross subsidizing old people. Good idea?

Rob42 writes:

Many years ago when I first moved to NJ, I was really annoyed that I couldn't pump my own gas.

Years later when I finally moved away from NJ, I was really annoyed that I had to pump my own gas.

Jon Murphy writes:

I feel like the comments here are missing the point: there is no ex ante reason to expect, as the NYT does, that repealing legislation that requires full-service pumps necessarily means they will disappear.

It is possible that full-service only exists because of regulations. Possible but not probable. As economics teaches us, so long as people are willing to pay and suppliers willing to supply, there will be an exchange.

To the extent these people's desires for full-serve aren't fulfilled, the question needs to be asked: "why?" Is minimum wage too high to prevent the hiring of gas attendants? Are these people who demand full-serve actually expressing their true preferences or merely signalling? Etc.

I'll end with Bastiat:

"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."

The NYT is making the same mistake as the socialists Bastiat discusses: they assume that if the state doesn't do something it won't exist.

Scott Sumner writes:

Everyone, I added a map to the post showing lots of full service stations near my old house in Massachusetts.

Mark Barbieri writes:

It is very hard to find full service stations in Texas. One reason is that our laws discourage them. They require any station that has full service and self service to provide full service and the self service price to anyone handicapped. Sounds nice, but it makes it much less cost effective to provide full service since a significant percentage of the people that would be included to use it won't pay more for it. The result is that instead of helping handicapped people, they've lost the option.

Mark writes:

Scott and Jon Murphy,

One need not assume full service stations will disappear absent the law for it to be rational (if rather petty) for one to support it for self-interested reasons. Suppose absent the ban, 60% of stations will offer full service (reflecting the ~60% of people that support the ban; being mathematically naive here). That means for people who prefer full service, 40% of the time you stop for gas at a random station you have to self-serve, or waste time looking for another one. So, they may reason, why not make it 100% by law?

It's not as though it's that uncommon in a democracy for 60% (or 51%) of the population to confer upon themselves a minor convenience at the expense of rendering the rest of the population a major inconvenience. And it's not as if the notion that we should require, by regulation, that businesses do something if enough people want it to be done is a foreign concept to the editorial staff of the NYT.

So, if it isn't already clear, of course, in my opinion,this law is economically inefficient; my point is that it is an example of democratic decision-making motivated by voter self-interest yielding an economically inefficient outcome.

Mark Bahner writes:
One need not assume full service stations will disappear absent the law for it to be rational (if rather petty) for one to support it for self-interested reasons. Suppose absent the ban, 60% of stations will offer full service (reflecting the ~60% of people that support the ban; being mathematically naive here).

Yes, and even if 60% of the stations ***offer*** full service, nationwide 90% of the gasoline is pumped from self-service pumps. So even if the stations ***offer*** full-service, the cost of that full-service is going to need to be spread across a drastically reduced number of gallons pumped (unless the stations try to spread the cost out to self-service pumps, which would likely make their self-service pumps non-competitive).

So people who want to get full service, but don't want to pay what the unfettered market would charge for that full service, rationally try to force everyone to have full service.

Dylan writes:

@Scott,

I'm curious what your source is for the map that you provided? I just did a search for full service gas stations in an area I know fairly well, and got lots of results for service garages that are advertised as full service, but none of which have someone dedicated to pumping your gas for you.

Looking at your map I'd say a decent percentage are not full service in the sense that you are thinking. Several appear to not have gas at all and are just service garages. The BP listed doesn't appear to offer full service from the Google Street View I saw, just a service garage. The Sunoco does advertise full service pumps, although the Google Street View showed someone who didn't appear to be an attendant pumping gas at one of them. So I'm not sure it is quite as common as you think, although your point is taken that it doesn't seem to be as extinct as it was in the places I grew up.

I should also note that the story I read on Oregon allowing self service at the start of the year was also in the NYT I believe, and that story did note that the stations they talked to planned to keep offering full service even after this change went through, but were considering extending hours to allow for self service at night.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Mark-

That means for people who prefer full service, 40% of the time you stop for gas at a random station you have to self-serve, or waste time looking for another one. So, they may reason, why not make it 100% by law?

Sure, but the argument the NYT is perpetuating is not that it will be probabilistically harder to find full-serve: it's that it will be impossible to find full-serve. They're not saying "there's now a 40% chance you won't find full-serve." They're saying "there's now a 0% chance you won't find full serve."

The question is: why do people make this assumption?

Scott Sumner writes:

Mark, I completely disagree. There is no way the NYT would have treated a proposal to bad grapefruit production that way. It would seem "obvious": that consumers should be able to choose between oranges and grapefruit, even though older consumers who have a sweet tooth would be helped by banning grapefruit, for exactly the reasons you state.

It was simply an oversight on the part of the NYT, a lack of realization that no one was proposing the banning of full service.

Dylan, I've regularly bought gas at those stations, and I can assure you they were full service. I can't guarantee that every single station shown is full service, but I can guarantee that full service stations are very plentiful in Massachusetts--I used many of them during the winter. The gas attendants at those BP and Sunoco stations on the map look like immigrants from the Middle East. They are real people.

Jon, Exactly.

Mark Bahner writes:
It would seem "obvious": that consumers should be able to choose between oranges and grapefruit, even though older consumers who have a sweet tooth would be helped by banning grapefruit, for exactly the reasons you state.
It was simply an oversight on the part of the NYT, a lack of realization that no one was proposing the banning of full service.

A counter-point has been made that perhaps the NYT writer and possibly editors want to force all stations to continue to have required full service at all pumps, so the cost of the full service at all times for all pumps can be spread among (non-willing) customers.

I don't see how it's possible to assess motives without discussing the matter with the author (and editors). And even then it's obviously very difficult.

Mark Bahner writes:

A few full-service station lines in Omaha, NE

I was curious about the prevalence of full-service stations in other northern states, and the cost difference between full-serve and self-serve in those states. Per the above article:

There are at least a half-dozen gas stations in the Omaha area that still offer full-service or a single full-service lane.

Also:

Locally, the full service costs anywhere from about 10 cents to 80 cents more per gallon than the fuel at a self-serve station, but full-service customers say it’s worth it.

Older people, people with disabilities, and customers allergic to gasoline fumes find the full-service option convenient, Jim Norton said. That particular day a gallon of regular self-serve gasoline was $3.49, while a gallon of regular at the full-serve pump was $4.05. The price varies, said Norton, but it’s usually 30 to 60 cents more per gallon.

I think it's so cool that answers like that can be found on the Internet. What a world!

Brian writes:

" They're saying "there's now a 0% chance you won't find full serve."

The question is: why do people make this assumption?"

Jon,

Because maybe that's what they think they observe in other states with self-service?

Scott showed that full service is plentiful in MA and argues that MA is similar to NJ. But that really has nothing to do with it. People in NJ are most likely to experience gas stations in neighboring states, like NY (where NYT editors might live) and PA (where I live).

Now, I can't say that full service isn't plentiful in PA--I haven't researched it--but I can say that I haven't noticed it anywhere I get gas. For travelers from NJ who don't think ahead, they might have experienced difficulty in finding full service. So they conclude that it disappears when not required.

Bonnie writes:

In the Finger Lakes area of NY where I live, there is only one full service station that I am aware of as it is on my alternate route home from work. It was just recently converted to full service only from self-service only, which took me completely by surprise when I pulled up, got out of the car to pump my gas and the attendant made me get back in. Being waited on like that was so completely foreign to me that it felt strange rather than convenient. I suppose New Yorkers living out in the sticks are willing to shiver in the winter to avoid paying extra; though there have been a few new assisted living homes constructed in the vicinity of the station, and I imagine that may have something to with its conversion.

I agree with you that the NYT is one of the better newspapers, but it appears noticeably bias toward the left in my opinion and the inference that full service would be banned if self-service is allowed probably was not a mistake. I have conditioned myself to just take what I want from it and leave the rest. Otherwise, the annoyance with it would become overwhelming.

Dale M Courtney writes:

Scott & Dylan,

As of 1 Jan 2018, customers can now pump their own gas in Oregon, though only at stand-alone gas stations in counties with fewer than 40,000 residents.

best,
Dale

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