Gas Prices Under $3.50 Nationally—and Under $4 Even in California

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Through early 2012, the consensus had it that gas prices would soar through summer, easily hitting $4 or higher around the country. Just the opposite trend has taken hold in the spring and early summer. This week, the national average dipped under $3.50, which is about 15¢ less than a year ago—and 45¢ cheaper than the 2012 high hit a few months back.

In California, reports the Los Angeles Times, average gas prices have dipped under $4 per gallon for the first time since February. Prices have dropped by 10¢ or more in the Golden State for three weeks in a row. Average prices in the state sat at $4.37 just one month ago. Not long ago, gas a dozen or so states cost $4 or more per gallon; now, all Lower 48 states are under the $4 mark, with only the outliers, Hawaii and Alaska, charging above $4.

North Carolina is one of the states where gas prices have positively plummeted in spring and early summer. The Charlotte Observer reported that average prices in the state were $3.41 during the first week of June—30¢ cheaper than the month before. Prices in North Carolina currently average $3.33.

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According to AAA’s Fuel Gauge Report, at $3.497, the national average is 15¢ cheaper than it was a year ago at this time. The current average is also lower than the overall average for 2011 ($3.53 per gallon), which was the priciest year ever in the U.S. for gasoline.

Cheaper gas prices function basically as a stimulus to the economy. As one experts told CNN Money:

“Just as an increase in gas prices is essentially is a tax on consumers, a decrease in prices acts as a tax cut,” said Brett Ryan, economist with Deutsche Bank.

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As gas prices decline, drivers have more money to dispose of in ways other than filling the tank. This money can go toward splurges at the mall, dinner at a nice restaurant, and so forth. It might even be earmarked for a much-needed emergency fund.

While consumers have obvious reason to welcome cheaper gas prices, there are arguments to be made that gas prices should remain high—or at least stable. A Mother Nature Network post by Jim Motavalli, who covers the green auto beat, makes the case that “wildly erratic” gas prices cause trouble for consumers because they don’t know which automobiles make the most sense financially. Whether it’s worth paying a premium for a fuel-efficient model depends a lot on the cost of fuel. And if you’re entirely in the dark about the future cost of fuel, the buying decision involves plenty of guesswork.

Though the idea is admittedly “dead on arrival” politically, the post suggests a price floor for gasoline prices, so that no matter the fluctuations in the oil markets, American drivers, as well as automakers, would know that prices at the pump would never dip below, say $4 a gallon, and they’d adjust accordingly.

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Motavalli writes:

I’m not running for office, so I can say that a price floor for gasoline would be a great idea that would give automakers some stable ground as they plan the future. It’s an incentive not just for electric cars, but for the smaller vehicles that really should be dominating our roads.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.