Friday, July 17, 2015

"A Most Violent Year", a film about violence and price fixing in the heating oil industry

This is a 2014 film set in the days of a crime filled New York City in 1981.  It is an interesting but not an especially remarkable film.  What makes it worth a comment is that, from experience here, the price fixing, or cartel like price gouging, described in the film still goes on today.

We had oil heat in our first house here in suburban New York beginning in 1986.  Oil seemed expensive and unpredictable in its price movements.  There was already a gas line into that little house so once we recovered from the down payment on the house in a year or two, we replaced the 1924 asbestos covered oil furnace in the basement and converted to gas.

Our current house had oil heat when we purchased it in 1997 and the house had no gas line.  The cost and disruptive process of putting a gas line in from the street seemed unnecessary at first, but when we changed to a much more efficient furnace we chose one that could be converted to gas if we chose.  Spending almost 15 years looking it heating oil bills, and paying them, was exasperating. When the price of oil went down, heating oil did not.  In summers when there was less demand, the price stayed flat and never went down.  When oil prices in the market went up, heating oil went up more.  This phenomenon went on and on.  I called many times to get an explanation and it was always something incoherent, and often different from one customer rep to the next.  The all purpose answer was that the heating oil market was totally unrelated to the oil price market that you read about.  It boggled the mind.

"A Most Violent Year" depicts conflict in the heating oil industry in which prices were rigged and the various oil providers operated like a quasi-monopoly.  If someone stepped out of line with real competition or better service, they were stepped on.  Whether they were mob related or not didn't matter.

While the film was set in the horribly graffiti trashed city of the time, it does not seem as if the heating oil industry has changed in any material way since that time.  Whether the garbage industry, concrete industry, or other formerly mob controlled businesses have changed or not, who knows. With garbage the guess here is no, but that is based on casual observation and not facts.

Eventually we did move to gas heat in our current house.  Hurricane Sandy forced us to get a gas line installed for a generator.  We were never going to go through an experience like Sandy again, hopefully.  With the gas line in, we extended it to the basement and now have reliable, relatively inexpensive, and predictably priced gas heat.

This film was involving enough in its own right, but it turned on that light bulb in my head about our experience with oil heat and it was a revelation.  What made no sense was never meant to.

Postscript:  the film itself was a fictional story about a heating oil company whose owner refused any ties with blatantly illegal activities.  He was an aggressive businessman, but generally above aboard. I say generally since his wife, who was also his accountant, always stressed that they "followed standard industry practices", which meant that they were part of some skimming and collusion but not part of any violent behavior or strong arming.  His struggle to "stay clean" in the business and protect his family is the focus of the film.


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