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Without freedom of movement, it's kind of boring

Since I learned to drive, and started paying for gasoline, a big challenge in my life has been finding the cheapest gasoline within easy striking distance of whatever territory I was likely to be prowling.

Then I look around to find the most expensive gas and run through a few quick calculations in my head and come up with how much I save on a particular tank of gas. My goal is to get a free gallon of gas, relatively speaking, each time I fill the tank.

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The game hasn't been much fun lately. Years back, when gas was still less than a dollar a gallon, it was generally possible to find a variation of as much as 4 or 5 cents. On a 15-gallon tank, a savings of 5 cents a gallon comes out to 75 cents, which was enough to buy a gallon early in my driving career.

These days, the savings are generally in the range of 5 to maybe 10 cents a gallon, and the price of gas hasn't been measured in cents for decades. The result is getting that free gallon of gas has become almost impossible. It's kind of like playing solitaire with a deck that's missing a face card in each suit.

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Heck, just before I started writing this, I filled up at $3.30 a gallon (I'll ignore the 9/10 of a cent or 9/1000 of a dollar bit in the end of gas prices because most of us do when we talk about gas prices), which was a solid 20 cents a gallon cheaper than the most expensive gas I saw after filling up. On a typical 15-gallon fill-up, this is the closest I've gotten to a free gallon in quite some time, a savings of $3. More typically, I've been picking up a free pint to maybe a quart and a half.

Which kind of brings me to where I can start making my point. We Americans, myself included, generally don't feel completely Fourth-of-July free unless we are free to go where we want. It's the urge that brought our ancestors to this continent, whether they trekked across a land bridge at Alaska or came by boat later. It's part of what's behind the covered wagon migration west. It's part of why there was a Great Migration from South to North in the first half of the 1900s. In my mind, it's also why we sent half a dozen crews to the moon and have since found simple orbiting of the planet a good deal less exciting. And, not coincidentally, it's why when someone in a languishing gathering shouts "Road Trip!" the response is likely to be something on the order of an enthusiastic: "Where should we go?"

For all of living memory, freedom of movement has depended largely on having a car and a few dollars for gas money. Take up a collection, and in no time there's money for two tanks of gas and a few pizzas, enough to fuel a trip to the mountains, the ocean or the nearest big city. Road trip accomplished.

Well, this used to be true. These days a tank of gas costs well in excess of $50 and it would be easy to find a vehicle with a 30-gallon tank that would cost $100 to fill up at $3.30. Five guys with a few crumbled up singles and fives each might be able to come up with gas money, but surviving a day and a half without a pizza or two makes the whole concept of road trip seemingly contingent on winning the lottery.

And now for my point: in my lifetime, economic hard times have always gone hand in hand with high-priced gasoline. In the mid-1970s, there was the first OPEC oil embargo, lines at pumps, high inflation and high unemployment. Then in the early 1980s, there was talk of gasoline going to $2 or even $3 a gallon, and economic instability; same thing in the late 1990s.

Ever since that crazy week when Hurricane Katrina trashed New Orleans and forced the shutdown of oil refineries along the Gulf Coast, a week when gas prices on electronic signs were changing five and six times a day, the price of gas has been both high and unstable. And for roughly the same span, the national economy has been somewhere between slow and dead.

It's my belief that there is a strict correlation between the two and while the cause and effect relationship may be variable in the early stages of a gas price spike and an economic downturn, over the long haul, as long as we feel like gas is expensive essentially is the same length of time the economy remains in the gas station bathroom toilet.

I believe this is directly related to a loss of freedom. Sure, I'm still free to rail against the government, and gripe about the lackluster cast of would-be leaders to replace what's in office now. But that kind of freedom only leads to mental irritation and physical gnashing of teeth.

No, in my mind, things won't turn around because of my freedom to complain or dissent. They'll turn around when I can fill up my tank with gas or alcohol or some other fuel, drive with my son or daughter or wife to some mildly amusing destination, and come home without feeling guilty about the effect on family finances.

Until this kind of freedom is restored, I predict continued economic difficulties with a side show of political fighting.

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