Friday, August 24, 2007

it's not like you are only spending money when you pay at the pump

Discover Your Inner Economist has this quote from another economist to the effect that, "A person who has never missed a flight is someone who has spent too much time waiting in airports." I was recently in a conversation with some friends in which the women were bragging about how of course they have never in their lives had they ever run out of gas while the men, at one time or another, all had. I wish I would have been in touch with my Inner Economist enough to retort that "A person who has never run out of gas is someone who has spent too much time standing in gas stations," as I think this is exactly right. As much of a pain as it is to run out of gas, if you imagine the extra time spent by someone who always refills at 3/8 versus someone who refills over 1/8, the former goes to the gas station 14 times for every 10 times for the latter person. If we budget getting gas at 7 minutes per stop and saying the latter runs a 1 in a 1000 risk of running out of gas, then running out of gas would have to be enough of a pain that a person is willing to trade 46.6 hours of their time to avoid it. So being proud of never running out of gas is like being proud of having spent a week of vacation time standing at Citgo.

This is the prelude to an anecdote that ends, improbably enough, at Uranus, but that will have to wait until later.

27 comments:

Anonymous said...

running out of gas is more dangerous for women. do the calculations account for that?

jeremy said...

Sure, if the difference is just part of the male advantage regarding dangers, then fine. In the conversation in question, it was presented more as a difference in the general conscientiousness of women and men.

That said, standing at filling stations is probably also more dangerous for women than men, and the dangers associated with running out of gas have probably diminished with the rise of cell phones.

Jamy said...

A lot of time is lost when you do run out of gas but it looks like a reasonable trade-off by your calculations.

I've run out of gas once, right after I got my one and only car. It was a 1970 chevy malibu and didn't have a fancy indicator light. The circumstances were very inconvenient (though not dangerous). But I learned something important: when "low" was too low. Never made that mistake again.

Anonymous said...

Time isn't the only consideration here. There's also an emotional consequence to running out of gas. While one might spend more time gassing up at regular intervals, the time lost may outweigh the psychological costs of running out of gas.

Anonymous said...

Folks, it really isn't that dangerous to run out of gas, or get filled up alone. Do you know of attacks like that? Maybe in Lifetime movies. It is more inconvenient.

Plus I think it is better for the car, particularly in cold or wet weather, not to let it run on fumes too often.

I find those credit car pay at the pump things efficient, especially if you spend the time cleaning your windshield.

Ang said...

That's an apples and oranges comparison to me, the airport and the gas. If you run out of gas, it's irritating, but you can usually get gas relatively soon. I know people who have missed flights and had to stay in Kansas City for 36 hours. That's significantly shittier than sitting in the car for an hour and waiting for your friend or AAA or whatever.

Also, I would add that being proud of being able to measure everything in life though the clock is like being proud of having no fun.

Ang said...

PS - That last comment was directed at the author, not you. Your riffing on the "Inner Economist" is very amusing.

sara said...

I was a participant in that conversation and, perhaps unsurprisingly, remember it differently.

First, as I recall, the gender difference was an observation (with very small numbers in each cell!) in search of an explanation (with "general conscientiousness" considered alongside "higher risk aversion" and so on).

Second, what I thought was most amusing about the conversation was the reluctance of the men to simply report that they had run out of gas. Rather, as if y'all were the qualitatively inclined social scientists in the group, the question, "have you ever run out of gas?" elicited rich and detailed story telling (borrowed cars with unreliable meters, long drives up hills in foreign cities, etc.). Clearly, running out of gas (or risking running out of gas) has *meaning* - even to people who have done so - and, as Anon 11:59am points out, those meanings are not sufficiently accounted for by your inner economist.

For me, feeling certain that we are nowhere near running out of gas (esp. given that my gas meter is unreliable below the quarter tank mark) allows me to be more relaxed about the seeming inevitability of getting lost. I think this is of benefit not only to me, but whomever is in the car with me ("Revere Beach" - need I say more?).

jeremy said...

Sara: I think I'm confused about how our accounts differ. As nobody plans to run out of gas, it seems to me like of course running out of gas is going to imply some story. The counter to the story is that if one didn't let one's tank run below 3/8, one runs virtually no risk of having the sort of storytelling experiences arise that lead people who will let a tank go to 1/8 or lower run out of gas.

My own story is that the car I owned in high school (my $700 dream) actually ran out of gas when its gauge read 1/8 of a tank, although somebody who refilled at 3/8 would never have learned this. As it was, I ran out more than once, so I can't blame it simply on learning that it had a high baseline. Then again, I think if I had an exactly correct digital gas gauge, I would not have run out gas in any of those instances, so running out clearly said something about my conscientiousness and attitude toward risk.

jeremy said...

Oops. Missing a "to." Revise sentence above to "The counter to the story is that if one didn't let one's tank run below 3/8, one runs virtually no risk of having the sort of storytelling experiences arise that lead people who will let a tank go to 1/8 or lower TO run out of gas." My conscientiousness is also on display in my willingness to post without proofreading.

sara said...

To clarify - the main difference I see in our accounts is in re: your perception that "greater conscientiousness" was being presented as the explanation for the gender difference.

The "difference" in re: stories is a different sort of difference (hee!). That is, when I think of that conversation, what stands out to me was the detailed stories offered (indeed, insisted upon), in response the attempt to get some quick survey data ("have you ever run out of gas - yes/ or no?") from y'all. So, when I recount that conversation (e.g., this weekend, in LA, with the only female friend of mine who has ever reported running out of gas), I highlight the story telling, whereas you do not.

BTW, your post made me feel special, as (perhaps thanks largely to you?) I have dramatic stories to tell about NOT running out of gas.

Anonymous said...

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Jude said...

This may very well be the nerdiest observation you have ever made.

Anonymous said...

A previous employer of mine made this same point to me, but like anonymous said above, there are also stress implications and impacts to take into account.

We actually called the dealer of my car, Chevy, and talked to the mechanic and he said that he generally never lets it fall below a quarter due to the increased chance of significant engine damage that can result from running on low levels of gas.

Brock20

Ang said...

Brock20, my dad is totally on board with this. He's religious about refilling before it gets to a quarter.

jessica said...

Could your attitude toward risk relate to gender? ;)

Anonymous said...

Agree with others that time wasted glancing nervously at the gas gauge is worse than the time spent on extra fillups. Also have heard that sediment collects in the bottom of your gas tank and so when you run low you're potentially causing damage: http://www.bankrate.com/brm/news/auto/20031114a1.asp . I live in NJ where you can't pump your own gas and would love to see an economic analysis of how bothering inefficient this is economically. The extra wait irritates me every time I get gas, though people who grew up here can't seem to imagine pumping their own.

anomie said...

It's all a matter of perspective: you save time by letting your gas tank empty, but you lose money due to imminent wear and tear on the car. The gas is an important coolant for your fuel pump, especially in hot weather.

I drive about 300 miles a week, but I am a grad student. I need time AND money. Hmmmm........

Chip said...

Do the Inner Economists here assume that time spent waiting in airports, or on stops for gas, is singly devoted to that task?

I would say if you pull in to use the restroom or buy a drink, you should fill up when your tank is below half full. Better not to make two stops - I'm not sure how that nets out against this 14:10 business.

And this is without the added benefits of clean windshields, stretched legs, etc.

Further, I would say to those who advocate living on the marginal edge by missing the occasional plane, if you're _really_ going to live rationally, get your sorry self to the airport early, check in, and do something other than watch closed caption CNN. I don't know - finish an overdue review, grade some papers, eat your lunch?

And don't even get me started on considering the odds of getting bumped, having your luggage miss a flight you make, or other assorted inconveniences associated with a late dash to the airport.

And oh yeah, what if you skip filling the car when you're alone and then run out of gas when you've got the kids with you?

Man, I'm just getting warmed up...soon enough I'm going to write an essay analyzing why people stand on escalators but walk on moving sidewalks. Except for those who don't.

Anonymous said...

This post is amusing as I am kind of person who would never get to 1/8 of a tank. Except, of course, the one and only time that I ran out of gas and Jeremy (who I suspect, often gets to an 1/8 of a tank) had to interrupt the writing of his dissertation to drive to a gas station in a snowstorm and then come refill my tank.
-Booser

christopher uggen said...

i've used this logic with regard to stolen base percentage: when a player can steal 20 without being caught, s/he should be running more often.

yli said...

this reminds me of what i heard at a perfectionists (um, actually, procrastinators) workshop: "if you can't find a typo in a manuscript, someone has spent too much time on it." i think that captures this economist rationale best and most neatly. (both the airport and gas station examples seem to have too many contingencies to allow counter-arguments.)
(... are there typos in this comment?)

Ken Houghton said...

I have never run out of gas and never missed a flight.

Which--especially in the latter case--does not mean the time is wasted. (There are several times when this has only been because special permission to open the plane was received, including one that featured driving 70 in downtown Indianapolis to get that close.)

As anomie notes, gasoline has MANY purposes in the engine other than just keeping the car running. Those who fill their tank in the 1/4 to 1/2 range pay less in maintenance and spend less time without their car than those of us who think 1/8th is "really should think about putting some in" territory. That's probably worth something even for those who don't use fill-up time to read. (Yes, I live in NJ; how could you tell?)

My favorite "running out of gas" story is Kathryn's, who reports that the first (possibly only) time she ran out was right when she reached a major refinery.

Dan Myers said...

There is another issue with running out of gas that I don't think anyone mentioned in these comments. The point in time when you run out of gas is likely to extraordinarily more inconvenient/costly than average. Chances are, it is more imperative that you do not run out of gas at the times you do than at the times you don't. Why? Because otherwise you would just go get some gas before it got that low. Chances are you are on your way to something important and you really can't afford to be late. You're pushing it to the limit not just randomly, but because you need to take the risk. When the risk doesn't pay off, it's a bigger loss than just time spent at the pump at your convenience.

nina said...

Dan, even more than your inconvenience is the inconveniece of the person who bails you out when you're out.

Slip the gender issue into this as you will.

jeremy said...

Chip: You must have more success working in airports than I do. But, anyway, being in Madison, I thought one of the great things about there is how you can get to the airport a half hour before with no worries.

Chip said...

I am caught...my "success" working in airports is somewhat limited ... but my point stands in that I do often read a magazine or book there that I _would_ have read elsewhere.

And agreed, you don't need to allow nearly as much time in Madison - unless going out between 6 and 7 AM on a busy day, then occasionally the security line will do you in (this may happen when a couple of TSA workers call out sick). Security line delay once caused me to miss a 6:45 AM flight for which I had arrived at the airport at 5:45 AM. And on that occasion I overcame my bitterness and got a great deal of work done before the next flight. (Luckily the bar was not open yet.)