Sunday, October 10, 2010

Concerning the Continental Price Divide

I've always known that South Texas is a relatively inexpensive place to live. That fact is reinforced every time I visit a restaurant or grocery store in Southern California or New York, or even in the Midwest. (The prices at a Wal-Mart in Menominee, Wisconsin took me by surprise.) But I noticed something on this most recent trip that I had never noticed before: there is a dividing line --- a Continental Price Divide, if you will --- that runs down along the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico. Until this trip, I'd always travelled in the southern part of the West: California, Nevada, Arizona. The rise in prices as you go west from Texas is somewhat gradual, although no less noticeable for that. But up north --- and this is what really surprised me --- the change in prices is steep and sharp. In the north, the change is like a cliff, while in the south, it's a sloping plateau.

I'd always assumed that it had to do with things like transport costs and state tax policy. I still think those must necessarily play a part --- witness the difference between the price of gas in South Lake Tahoe, California, and Carson City, Nevada, less than 50 miles away; only the comparatively rapacious tax policy of California, the state with the least efficient government, can account for the great difference. And despite all the cost-lowering progress in transport, brought about by technological advances in my lifetime, moving things still costs money, and moving it farther costs more (to a point).

But these can't be the only factors at work here. I say this because of the sharp difference in prices from one side of the Cascade Mountains to the other, within the state of Washington.

Prices for things tourists are interested in --- primarily gas, lodging, and restaurant food --- are high to the point of exorbitance in Seattle, as in all of coastal Oregon and California. This was more or less what I expected to find, and, sadly, wasn't disappointed. But get across the Cascades into the eastern counties of Washington state, and suddenly prices for gas and food drop. The burger that costs you $9 in Port Townsend, on the Olympic peninsula, is only $6.50 in Grand Coulee. The gallon of premium gas that costs $3.55 in Sea-Tac on Saturday night is only $2.99 in Spokane on Sunday afternoon. 

I suspect the trend holds good in lodging as well, but because of special arrangements made in advance in one place, and not the other, I can't really say with any specificity. All I can say is that I found a reasonably-priced room pretty much at random on the eastern side of the mountains, but couldn't locate one in a week of internet searches on the western side.

I don't know what causes this sharp bifurcation. Why is it that people in, say, Everett, Washington will pay 40% more for a hamburger, and 20% more for gasoline, than their neighbours in Spokane? 

Ideas, anyone?

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