MYTH 1: Eliminating Gas Station Attendants Will Just Lead to More Profits for the Owners and No Lower Prices for Consumers.
In the comments section of the previous post on the self-service gas poll, Kari Chisholm, an enormously intelligent guy for whom I have lots of respect, gets one terribly wrong. He argues that if gas station attendants were to disappear, gas station owners would just pocket the excess profits. I am sorry Kari but this is just bad economics - and wrong.
Excess profits, or 'rents' in the economics parlance, come from market conditions. Usually rents come from some sort of market concentration (monopoly or oligopoly) that can either be 'natural' (high fixed costs prohibit potential competitors from entering), or 'created' (regulation, patents, strategic entry deterrence, etc.). Now it may be true that gas stations do capture some rents because of special regulations covering the storage of potentially toxic fuel, among other things, but I doubt it is much. You see, it doesn't take very may gas stations to make a competitive market. The reason for this is that gas is, for the most part, a completely generic product and price information is posted very visibly, so consumers are extremely price sensitive and thus to attract them you have to compete fiercely on price. [For you economics students, this is a pretty good example of Bertrand price competition, in which only a few firms will drive the price to marginal cost] Most studies have found the market for retail gas to highly competitive.
Regardless of how competitive they are, however, the real key to why Kari's suggestion is in the fact that the market conditions do not change if you eliminate attendants, so any rents that exist after the elimination of attendants would be there before as well. The only thing that will change is the marginal cost of providing gas to consumers, and this cost savings will be passed on to consumers by force of competition. [And, by the way, when John Corzine proposed the change for New Jersey, the only other state that forbids self-service, it was the gas station industry group itself that was most instrumental in killing it - which should tell you that they did not expect to make higher profits with the switch]
MYTH 2: National Average Gas Prices are a Good Counter-Factual.
No. Local gas prices are determined by, among other things, state taxes, state regulations and especially, distance to pipelines and refineries. Just saying that Oregon's gas prices are consistent with other states prices where self-service gas is allowed tells us nothing. (But, by the way, Oregon is 4th highest in the continental US for regular gas prices according to the latest data from AAA) The true counter-factual is what would happen to prices at your local gas station if the labor costs were reduced - it doesn't take an economist to figure it out. But seeing as I am an economist, here is the basic econ 101 graph of supply and demand in retail gas with two supply curves, one that includes the extra cost of attendants and the other that does not. Note that when you include attendant cost, price goes up.
MYTH 3: Full-Service is a Good Way to Boost Employment and Reduce Driving, both Noble Goals.
If you buy my argument about gas prices, you may say, but wait, don't we want higher gas prices to discourage people to drive and and thus limit the carbon that is released into the atmosphere? To which I would answer, if that is true then you can increase the tax on gas and achieve the same thing, but the difference is government captures the revenue and can then spend it on things like: lower state college tuition for the types of people that would work as a gas station attendant, investments in public transportation, etc.
Also, full-service gas, as mentioned in previous posts has ambiguous effects on overall employment. There will likely be fewer gas stations with full service and high gas prices affect other industries by raising their costs which will also raise supply curves and lower output and employment. It is quite likely that this will actually lower overall state employment, not raise it, which is why we don't mandate employment in general.
But, by the way, none of this really matters, you can keep everything they way it currently is and still give me the right to pump my own gas (while the attendant watches). Surely you can't argue against that? What I would propose, however, is that each gas station must be able to provide the service upon request, but otherwise people would be allowed to pump their own.