Wednesday, August 31, 2005

More than meets the eye?

There is always more than one theory.

My explanation of Hawaii's gasoline price controls, yesterday, was the standard political grandstanding story. R.S. Radford has another explanation, which brings with it an intriguing puzzle. R.S. sent the following (I quote with permission and I could not have posed it nearly as well):

"Hawaii's new gasoline price controls ... raise the most fascinating public-choice issues I've encountered in a long while. Surely it's a coincidence ... that these controls were trotted out barely two months after the Supreme Court's decision in Lingle v. Chevron? In Lingle, the Court upheld previous Hawaii regulations controling the rent gasoline producers (like Chevron) could charge the independent dealer-operators who lease producer-owned service stations.

"As we know from the example of mobile home park rent control [in California] , the operative effect of this sort of legislation in general is to allow the renters to capitalize the market value of the regulations into the price of their leasehold when they sell it to a new tenant. But what made the regs at issue in Lingle different from the mobile home park context is that there is a dual revenue flow between Chevron (and other producers) and their dealer-lessees: the dealers pay rent on their stations, but they are obligated to buy all of their gasoline from the landlord-producer. Thus, theoretically, Chevron could have prevented its dealers from capitalizing the value of gas-station rent control by jacking up the wholesale price of gas by an offsetting amount. Now, of course, the new price controls -- which inexplicably cap only the wholesale price of gas -- strip the producers of this offsetting market power, clearing the way for dealers to start pocketing windfalls by selling their rent-controlled dealerships to third parties.

"So far, pretty obvious. The puzzling part is, who could have made this happen? Unlike California mobile home park residents, the Hawaii gasoline dealer lobby cannot be an important force in state politics, either numerically or financially. I mean (and I'm totally guessing here), how many gas dealerships are there in Hawaii? Thirty-five? And assuming such a lobby even exists, it would be going toe-to-toe in Gucci Gulch (or whatever they wear in Honolulu) against a counter-lobbying cabal of multinational corporations listed on the NYSE.

"Anyway, I'm stumped. Even if some local service station operator had broken into the legislature at midnight and slipped this bill into a stack of papers to be voted on the next day, you'd think Chevron, Exxon, et al, would have spotted it and blocked it. I'd be interested in any theories you might have, the more conspiratorial the better. The Truth Is Out There!"

Possible cabals in exotic settings are much more fun than one more poke at economic illiterates.