Gas Should Be Free

By David Reckner, President

In 1991 or 92, I had the privilege to participate in a panel discussion at the South by Southwest Conference in Austin, TX.  On the panel was a promoter from Washington, DC Seth Hurwitz.  While I would not call him a friend, I always found him to be smart, tough, and sarcastic and he knew how to put on a concert.  After the moderator had finished with his prepared questions to the panel, a queue of audience members assembled to ask questions.  The first or second person in line was a band manager from the DC area who had prepared a ten-minute diatribe about how Seth was perpetually letting the local DC music scene down by not booking her band.  Seth patiently sat and waited for the manager to finish then calmly responded, “I think that gas should be free.  Everybody needs it.  Why doesn’t the government force the gas companies to give it away?” 

After I stopped laughing, I realized that Seth had distilled one of the pillars of economics into a question that anyone could understand quickly and simply: Why isn’t gas free? 

Today, I am in a different business but am faced with a similar question every day: “Why won’t physicians do my survey for free (or at a greatly reduced cost)?”


I recently reviewed a Medscape report on current physician compensation.  According to the survey, an average Oncologist in the U.S. makes $330,000 per year.  If the physician takes two weeks off a year, spends a week of the year in training, works a 40-hour week, then the physician has about 1,950 hours per year of billable work.  In other words, the market has determined that the Oncologist’s time is worth $2.82 per minute. 

In speaking to a small set of Oncologists on our panel who have had an issue and want to talk to “the boss”, I usually hear that on any given week the Oncologist has about 5-10 survey invitations to choose from, and they set aside an optional hour or so a week to complete surveys. 

Speculating that the average survey length is 30 minutes, the physician has 210 minutes of survey demand and has 60 minutes of capacity. 

What is a reasonable amount of money to offer the physician to do the work of the survey?  Well, if you look at the Uber model for pricing when the demand for drivers exceeds the supply, prices for rides are multiplied by the difference.  On this basis, one could argue that 3.5 times the regular wage is reasonable.  If Uber were pricing the Oncologist’s time, the physician’s honoraria for a 30-minute survey would be $296.10. 

I think that a more reasonable model may be the US Fair Labor Standards Act. In the U.S. and many other countries, time and a half is an accepted incentive offered to employees to do work over and above their regular schedule. 

At time and half, the Oncologist’s time is worth $126.90 for the 30-minute survey.  At time and half, you as the researcher are acknowledging that the physician is doing work over and above their current job and you are offering a culturally-acceptable premium to do that work.

You could also offer the Oncologist their current rate of $84.60. Alternatively, you could pay the oncologist $30 for 30 minutes. This is what we were asked to match in a recent request. . . After all, your survey is unique, important, a quest to understand the universal condition, needs to be exposed to the world and, by golly, the physician has an obligation to the industry, no, humanity to do your survey! 

For me, I haven’t gotten any free gas lately, and frankly, I would be suspicious of anyone who offered me some.