A few weeks ago, I saw a meme on social media about inflation, something about it being better to pay more for gas than give up basic rights and freedoms. Then I saw another one about why complain about the price of eggs when you pay so much for coffee. Putin would love these images designed to divide people even more than they already are.
I’m going to go out on a limb to suggest that maybe it’s not possible to reduce complex challenges into memes.
Let’s consider the price of gasoline. It was reduced to an eagerly repeated attack on Biden. The President may have some impact on gas prices, but not enough to merit the attacks. While I think there is a good case to defend President Biden, my interest here is more to point out that this is a baseless attack that appeals to those who would rather not have to think too much about the problems we face, just assign blame.
I want to talk about what the price of gas can mean, absent the faux outrage by manipulators.
When you don’t have much money, life is a lot like those puzzles where you are trying to find a way to get a fox and chickens across the river (see footnote). If you make a mistake, you lose everything.
If you don’t have much money, you have to be able to travel to your job to earn money. Too often that means you need gasoline (hats off to anywhere with affordable or subsidized public transport or walkable/livable options for all, not just the wealthiest). If the cost of getting to work rises too high, you start to pay to go to work instead of getting paid to work. Or in some cases, pay more, since working is costly in terms of time and resources anyway.
Add to that the housing crisis, which is why the solution isn’t just “move where you can walk to work.”
I’ve lived my life frugally, and I’ve never been especially well-paid for my work, so I am aware of how alarming it can be to watch costs rise and not know how to earn any more money. I’ve been lucky because I could walk to work, and I avoided/eliminated almost all debt. Both reflect more luck than savvy on my part, and they gave me more breathing room than others who made more money than I did.
So let’s add debt to this chicken and fox puzzle: debt means you owe more each month that you can’t pay it down, and with interest rates rising (supposedly to help out with these kitchen table issues?), that amount is even higher than it used to be.
Meanwhile the privileged people pasting anti-Biden stickers on the gas pumps are often the same ones fighting the idea of student loan forgiveness — not because the loaning agencies won’t be repaid but because they can’t continue to demand interest payments throughout the borrowers’ lifetimes.
I worry about everyone struggling to make ends meet, struggling to find housing, struggling to live where the air is clean and weather events don’t kill them, some of which is a price the poorest people pay because of everyone’s dependence on gasoline. Depending on gasoline is another kind of debt—though gas is presented as a cheap source of energy, it creates a heavy load of long term debt in the form of extreme weather events, pollution-related health risks, not to mention the moral price of ignoring or even condoning genocidal autocrats in oil-rich countries.
So the meme bothers me because it’s not about paying more for gas. It shouldn’t be a trade off—we shouldn’t die due to pregnancies AND we need affordable, sustainable energy sources that don’t inflict so many short-term and long-term challenges.
The problem is gasoline, not the prices.
The problem is people living in desperate situations, not the ups and downs of prices.
And I’m frankly unnerved by rich people claiming that the solution to inflation is to increase unemployment and individual debt. The thought makes it hard for me to catch my breath, imagining people drowning in the consequences of these policies.
Too often, the wrong people claim to care about so-called kitchen table issues because the solutions they offer do more harm than good. Here’s a suggestion: If you dare speak of kitchen table issues, aim for honesty, authenticity, humility, and for heaven’s sake, compassion. Don’t complain, don’t posture, don’t play games; pursue solutions that actually help the people whose kitchens are empty, those standing on one side of the river, unsure how they’ll ever get across.
Here’s a description of this puzzle that involves a friendly fox that protects chickens but can’t be left unsupervised with just one: https://www.popularmechanics.com/science/math/a41021179/river-crossing-riddle/