Gas prices are down, and so am I. No, I'm not some sort of environmental nut. It's just that I know exactly what Susan Sontag meant when she said "I envy paranoids; they actually feel people are paying attention to them." And only last month I, as a consumer, was the victim of a vast international conspiracy. Those were the days. Back then I even had major politicians feeding my delusion. In September, Jack Layton called for a commissioner to review high gas prices; Stephen Harper told reporters it sure looked like gouging; and Stéphane Dion wanted more Competition Bureau powers to investigate price-fixing. Now prices are down, my political friends have gone silent and I'm a nobody.
Yeah, yeah, I've heard that gas prices both rise and fall in tandem because of the highly competitive nature of the industry, not the reverse, and are driven by actual or anticipated changes in the price of crude oil. But how lonely, how terribly lonely, to feel that it's all market forces, that I'm just a dust speck on the face of global trade. Of course politicians would rather be fearless crusaders against illicit plundering on an international scale than boring hacks mumbling populist clichés. And I'd rather be the target of such a conspiracy than just a guy struggling to make ends meet.
For the same reason -- to compensate for creeping feelings of insignificance, or insignificant feelings of creepiness -- I have frequently observed over many years that my investments invariably do what I wish my weight was doing and vice versa. Moreover, my mutual funds periodically jump up dramatically only to resume their steady painful day-by-day descent.
Just life in the market? Don't you believe it. Here's my theory: My holdings can't actually fall every day or they'd become worthless and the torment would stop. So once in a while the gnomes of Zurich engineer a sharp increase, over before I can enjoy it, then resume the long dreary decline. And while the "logical" explanation is that lots of people have the same problem, I don't open their financial statements. I'd rather sit alone brooding about a giant conspiracy pointed right at me. It makes me feel that I must really be somebody, when trillion-dollar international financial markets are rigged and jiggled daily just to make me feel bad. It sure beats sitting alone brooding that I'm sitting alone brooding.
So I'm not falling for any suggestion that I track the price fluctuations of my mutual funds to see if this fiendish pattern of occasional sharp rises and an overwhelming succession of small depressing declines even exists. No sir. They're not catching me with that one. I like feeling badly done to on a cosmic scale.
On the same basis I firmly refuse to track the long-term trend in gas prices adjusted for inflation. It risks revealing not only a fairly random pattern in the short to medium term, but also that gasoline is not more expensive now than in Henry Ford's day. Especially when you consider how much better it is. (Does anyone out there remember Johnny Cash's song about the guy whose filling station was put out of business by "high-test gasoline" that let cars whiz by on the freeway without constantly refuelling? If the name "Cisco Clifton" popped into your mind you may not be paranoid but you're certainly weird.) I say the tendency of prices to fall as well as rise just proves how clever they are.
Still, on a damp chilly October morning I can't shake the nagging suspicion that I am, at best, the victim of a third-rate failed conspiracy. Not for me fiendishness on the level of Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Fu Manchu or, to avoid the charge of making things up, the Masonic plot to take over the world and force us all to wear aprons or whatever it is they want.
It might be objected that the Masons have been so busy conspiring and hiding every single imaginable scrap of evidence except, um, that disquieting pyramid with the eye on the U.S. dollar that they've never really gotten around to doing all the sinister things their long-standing domination of everything permits. But I say that's a conspiracy where you get your money's worth: deep, patient, convoluted. The same way UFOs wouldn't be fun if the aliens crashed a spaceship on the West Block lawn in bright sunlight and a map and a medical manual fell out.
That's why I'm so disappointed with the gas price conspiracy. It turns out I'm the target of plotters on five continents and all I get is a lousy 90 cent per litre fill-up. What am I, chopped liver?
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]