Sunday, April 20, 2008

Folly

This was my column last Wednesday. I am currently in Bacolod.

The e-mail that’s currently clogging up networks is yet another hoax entitled Gas Out. It’s a pseudo campaign with a noble objective—to lower prices of oil by forcing a price war with the two major oil companies in the country. It is an e-mail that seems to be generating steam. Friends in the industry have asked me to comment on it since they have noted that many people seem to think that it would work.

It’s one of those pseudo campaigns with a huge potential to hook people in simply because it perpetuates the truism that many people continue to hold sacrosanct: When people come together in unity, nothing is impossible, even slaying a corporate giant. In this particular case, oil companies. Very few are able to resist the temptation to join something so seemingly righteous.

I received the e-mail at least six times in three days. If I had done what the e-mail had asked me to do, which was to forward it to 10 of my friends, I would have sent it to 60 other people. I did a little experiment and sent it only to some of my closest friends most of whom, I am pleased to report, did not forward the e-mail to the rest of the world. But I am not surprised that there are many people in this world who unwittingly perpetuate hoaxes. It doesn’t take much effort to forward e-mail, and many are more than willing to do that kind of “sacrifice” to bring something good in this world.

It really is easy to check the origins and the veracity of certain e-mails. A quick check at snopes.com, which serves as unofficial clearing house for urban legends all over the world revealed that the campaign is false. In other words, all the claims made in the e-mail are not supported by facts. The first version of the e-mail surfaced in 2001, and then again in 2002, 2004, 2006 and beginning March this year. The version that is currently circulating has been thoughtfully revised and edited to reflect local conditions.

I am reprinting relevant parts of the e-mail below, merely shortened for brevity by deleting certain parts:

“This will show you how we can get gas back down to P30 per liter. If you are tired of the gas prices going up, and they will continue to rise this summer, take time to read this please. Join the resistance!!!”

“Want gasoline prices to come down? We need to take some intelligent, united action. The oil companies just laughed at that because they knew we wouldn’t continue to ‘hurt’ ourselves by refusing to buy gas.”

“It was more of an inconvenience to us than it was a problem for them. But whoever thought of this idea has come up with a plan that can really work. Please read on and join us! By now you’re probably thinking gasoline priced at about P30 is super cheap. Me too! It is currently P45/liter for regular unleaded in my town.”

“Now that the oil companies and the OPEC nations have conditioned us to think that the cost of a gallon of gas is CHEAP at P45/liter, we need to take aggressive action to teach them that BUYERS control the marketplace... not sellers.”

“With the price of gasoline going up more each day, we consumers need to take action.
“The only way we are going to see the price of gas come down is if we hit someone in the pocketbook by not purchasing their gas. And, we can do that WITHOUT hurting ourselves. How? Since we all rely on our cars, we can’t just stop buying gas. But we CAN have an impact on gas prices if we all act together to force a price war. Here’s the idea: For the rest of this year, DON’T purchase ANY gasoline from the two biggest companies Shell and Caltex. If they are not selling any gas, they will be inclined to reduce their prices. If they reduce their prices, the other companies will have to follow suit.”

“But to have an impact, we need to reach literally millions of Shell and Caltex gas buyers. It’s really simple to do! Now, don’t wimp out on me at this point... keep reading and I’ll explain how simple it is to reach millions of people!!!”

The e-mail then goes on to do mathematical computations that illustrate how the campaign would be able to reach 300 million people if everyone sends the e-mail to 10 other people. It then closes with the usual exhortations about how people can make a difference by doing things together, blah blah blah.

I will not question anymore the choice of the two oil companies that the perpetrators of the e-mail want to boycott. I reckon that the people who initiated this campaign locally excluded Petron because they have an axe to grind against Shell and Caltex.

It is easy to shoot the e-mail by noting two things. First, that our country is not an oil producer and therefore does not create oil supply that easily. Since we import oil, we are governed by limitations of trade. There is theoretically, a fixed quantity of oil reserves in this country at any given time. Thus, tampering with the supply and demand situation can have disastrous implications.

Second, the law of supply and demand is anchored on the strength of the connective “and.” It cannot be the law of supply alone or the law of demand alone. Boycotting Shell and Caltex only results in a surplus of oil stocks for the two companies and a supply problem for the other (mostly smaller) oil companies, who will then need to buy from Shell and Caltex to be able to service the extra demand. The supposed price war is then transferred to another domain—this time, the companies with no supply and the two oil companies with excess oil supply who can, theoretically, dictate prices.

In short, by doing what the e-mail suggests, together we shoot ourselves in the foot.

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