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People Power

The people forced oil prices to fall; they could also force a real college football play-off.

by James Leroy Wilson
August 7, 2008

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People Power
Surging economies in China and India created greater demand for oil. Middle East instability, including threat of war against Iran, placed future oil supplies in jeopardy. The federal government's fiscal irresponsiblity created monetary inflation, motivating investors to buy natural resources as a hedge. The result? Oil prices soared, meaning gasoline prices soared.

So what did people do?

They stopped driving so much; gasoline consumption in the U.S. is down nearly 4% from last year.

What happened? Oil speculators perceived the market was peaking and started selling.

The result? Lower oil prices, leading to lower gas prices.

Not as low as they were several years ago - they will never get that low unless and until an alternative fuel source can compete with it. But lower than it had been for months.

The people took action, but not by pressuring politicians to "do something" on their behalf. Instead, they did things on their own. Their own self-interest caused them to reduce gasoline consumption, which led to lower oil prices. They looked at the money they could save, and they drove less.

Oil prices accomplished what years of environmental warnings could not: they motivated people to cut down their energy consumption. When conservation pays, the people will conserve.

This speaks to the efficiency of rational self-interest. The benefits are tangible and immediate.

There is a reason 40% of people don't bother to vote even in Presidential elections: they don't see it as worthwhile. And they would be correct. If time is money, they would be better off buying a lottery ticket instead. After all, the odds say one is more likely to win the lottery than decide an election by one vote, and the reward is much greater.

For the same reason, the turnout at marches and political demonstrations are often quite low. Not only are the chances of effecting change that way very slim, but there is little to no personal benefit to participating. The people who do show up tend to be very committed to political causes; politics is their hobby. They like the passion that politics creates. Most people, however, have better things to do.

Likewise, boycotts tend to backfire. Let's say it's revealed that Duff Beer sponsored an "immoral" event, and Acme Inc. pays low wages overseas. The righeously indignant will organize boycotts of both corporations. The question they will fail to ask and answer is, "What's in it for the boycotters?" For if the public enjoys its Duff Beer and its Acme products, how do they benefit from boycotting them, aside from drawing spiteful satisfaction from decreasing the revenues of these companies? If people drink Duff and loves Acme's gadgets, they will view it as a sacrifice to give them up. And "sacrifice" is a terrible motivation.

By "sacrifice" I don't mean serving others willingly and cheerfully; that is charity, which is another word for love. Sacrifice is, instead, giving something up not because one wants to, but because of peer pressure -- and not necessarily to serve others either, but just to "make a statement." Asking another person to make a sacrifice is an unreasonable demand.

Even so, enough people "boycotted" the gasoline pump this year to force a correction in oil prices. This was unorganized and spontaneous. It was market democracy, where enough people "voted" on their own how much they were willing to pay for fuel. They had better things to do with their money.

And that would be the secret to a successful boycott. Persuade people that a boycott would not only advance their ideals, but that they would benefit financially as well.

One of the curiosities of our culture is major college football. The national championship is decided by a one-game play-off determined by an organization called the BCS, and the teams that play in it are selected partly due to on-field performance, and partly due to political maneuvering and media manipulation. Nobody likes it; nobody thinks it "works." Yet hundreds of thousands of fans turn out for this game, the other prestigious BCS Bowl games, and two dozen other bowl games every year. These same fans would like to see a play-off tournament. But it is not the BCS sponsors, bowl committees, and tv networks that hold back the play-off; the reason we have no play-off is because the fans continue to support the present BCS system they claim to despise. They do so because they love their teams more than they hate the BCS.

But attending these games is expensive. There are costs for the ticket, travel, hotel, and food. How hard is it, really, to merely decide not to go to a bowl game? One could:

  • save the money for a nicer summer vacation;
  • choose to increase support for one's favorite charities;
  • get ahead on the mortgage, or put the savings in a child's college fund.

The people could bring College Football to its knees just by doing better things with their own money than wasting it on forgettable bowl games that support a system the people don't even like or want.

It's quite simple, really: if you don't like the BCS, don't go to any bowl games. Not even if your team is in the national championship game. For if you do, you are voting "yes" to the BCS with your own time and money. Most of all, think of what you can do with the money you won't spend at the bowl game. If enough people will realize this year how much better off they would be by skipping the bowl games, then we will quickly see a reform of, or the demise of, the BCS within a season or two.

If the people want change, they shouldn't just speak out in opinion polls or demand government action. All they really need to do is withhold their money from what they don't want, and spend it on something they do want instead. Money talks. 

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