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If One More Person Says Hurricane Price-Gouging Is Good, We're Going to Lose It

If One More Person Says Hurricane Price-Gouging Is Good, We're Going to Lose It
Via Twitter / OrlandoSentinel.com
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There's a special place in Hell for people who price-gouge the poor and charge $99 for cases of water during a hurricane.

But dangling directly above those people, locked inside cages with no room to stand or lie down, Satan has reserved a few extra spaces for pundits who waste valuable column inches in newspapers or magazines arguing that overcharging the poor for lifesaving supplies is somehow a good, wholesome, or heroic thing to do. Somehow, multiple news and opinion outlets have published arguments in favor of price-gouging this week, after Hurricane Irma hit Florida.

Social media and cable news have broken the journalistic-take machine, devalued the written word, and assured that "Both Sides" of every possible issue are spewed into the public discourse at breakneck speed. Like an ink-stained version of Schrödinger's cat, all issues are now both Good and Bad, and there are so many opinions online that it's impossible for many readers to even keep up. Last month, people began arguing that Nazis are good.

Now, in the wake of both Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Irma here, a small group of greedy ghouls and complete dipshits has risen to provide America an apparently essential service by arguing that overcharging poor people for essential services is Good and Right and Just and the American Way because they read the SparkNotes of Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations in college while snorting cocaine through rolled-up pages ripped from a used copy of The Fountainhead.

Somehow, the people arguing in favor of price-gouging aren't just saying, "The poor are worthless and you don't deserve water if you can't afford it." Despite being a far more heinous thing to say, that argument actually makes more logical sense than the recent op-eds in favor of the practice. Instead, people are citing Smith to somehow argue that jacking up the price for essential, lifesaving services in a tragedy ensures that the neediest people get those goods because the high price-point allegedly discourages people from buying frivolous items they don't need.

That is nonsense — as anyone who's ever been broke or met a poor family knows, charging $50 for water or gasoline means only the wealthiest human beings buy those goods, while needier, poorer people are forced to make harrowing, impossible decisions of whether to use their last $50 to buy an extra week of spare diapers for their children or a few more jugs of water to take a shower if they lose access to clean water.

Meanwhile, richer folks can simply walk into stores and still buy whatever they want. If you think high prices discourage well-off people from buying frivolous things, you have clearly never been to Miami. Price-gouging is evil, and anyone arguing in favor of it is either a troll or moron. None of the op-eds in favor of gouging also mentions the fact that it's a method by which people who own supplies are able to make extra money on the backs of people forced to buy goods during an emergency.

The authors are instead all united by their complete disregard for the basic concepts of supply and demand, their child-level understanding of Smith himself, their disregard for the literal 241 years of economic theory that has come after Smith, their apparent hatred for poor people, and the fact that everyone spewing this nonsense is either a wealthy Floridian or someone who lives in the Northeast and thinks he or she knows what it's like to live through a hurricane.

And, by the way, this isn't an academic argument: By Saturday, Attorney General Pam Bondi's office said it had received more than 8,000 gouging complaints. That number has surely risen since.

The battery of absurd arguments began September 7, when the Orlando Sentinel's op-ed page published an abominable take titled — really — "Hurricane Irma Price Gougers Aren't Greedy, They're heroes." That headline alone is worth firing the entire op-ed editorial and copy staffs at the paper, but it only gets worse from there. The author, guest columnist Jack A. Chambliss, comes from a group called the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, a libertarian think tank that's part of the State Policy Network, a funding chain that has taken money from the Koch brothers, cigarette maker Philip Morris, Comcast, and pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline, among other bastions of American moral turpitude. Tally's James Madison Institute is otherwise famous for one of the biggest political gaffes of this decade, by which we mean that time last year one of its operatives got caught admitting it was helping Florida Power & Light try to trick consumers into giving up their rights to home solar panels.

Much like the New York Times was under no obligation to publish takes from lunatics such as the ham-brained Louise Mensch or mercenary warlord Erik Prince, no one forced the Orlando Sentinel to publish this nonsense. But it did anyway. Any arguments that the op-ed does not reflect on the newspaper's judgment are nonsense.

Let's take a closer look at this abomination.

"On March 9, 1776, Adam Smith published the most important book on economics ever written," Chambliss begins, in a voice so smug he sounds like an anthropomorphic monocle. He continues:

What if busy-body politicians simply let the free market work the way Smith intended?

Here is what would happen:

First, the category 5 storm heading for our peninsula would cause everyone to scurry like greedy rats into the marketplace to stock up on enough supplies to last five years.

Second, upon arriving at the store, they would see signs reading: Hurricane Irma Special: Water — $30 (or more) per case.

Then consumers who care about no one when prices are low are all of a sudden forced to care about everyone because the higher price serves a critical rationing function. Now the water will be rationed based on our actual demand (and ability to pay), not some panic-induced buying binge that harms other people. The higher price stems demand and makes sure more people can find water. They might have to cut back on their cable bill, restaurant spending or phone plan to buy water, but so be it.

You read that right: He understands that poor people would need to make possibly life-threatening decisions thanks to gougers, but he doesn't care. In what world is it OK to cut off access to phones when people need to call 911 or check in with relatives? And even if cable TV and restaurant meals are technically not lifesaving services, that does not mean it's humane to force the poor to live without them so rich folks can make more money during a disaster.

"Higher prices also signal entrepreneurs to rush supplies to areas impacted by such storms," he writes, ignoring that this tactic is by far the least efficient way to actually rush supplies to a given area during a storm, that price-gouging almost always occurs during a supply shortage, and that in those situations, the government is almost always forced to send in emergency supplies to prevent people from dying.

It is also important to note that price gougers (so called) are simply selling their private property at a price they and others agree to. Private property rights make up the core of what our country is founded on. If I own something, I should have the right to part with it at the price other people are willing to pay.

Except consumers don't "agree" to pay for vital supplies during something like a hurricane. They're forced to buy them at whatever prices they can find. If one dude on the street is selling water bottles for $300 while everyone else is charging $2, Chambliss' his argument might hold weight, but that's not how things work.

He concludes by apparently quoting Scrooge McDuck:

So, the next time you see someone on the side of the road selling water or plywood for the new “hurricane price,” stop and say thank you. After all, they are — whether you know it or not — performing a valuable public service.

We figured we could ignore that horrendous take and let it die, but the National Review, the bastion of moronic, misguided conservatism that previously argued against the civil rights movement and in favor of South African apartheid, yesterday morning chimed in with its own defense of price-gouging, titled "Price Gouging Is a Public Service."

It bears noting that author Kevin D. Williamson — a man with neither a coherent political ideology nor the ability to self-edit (there is literally only a single paragraph about price-gouging in his piece, and the rest of the article is pablum) — is neither from Florida nor lived through Hurricanes Harvey or Irma. He instead writes from Philadelphia:

You know what price-gouging is? A public service. Prices are how we ration scarce goods, and the pain associated with paying unusually high prices is how we learn not to put off laying in supplies until after the disaster has already happened. The guy with supplies to sell has, either through luck or foresight, managed to put himself in possession of what you need — and you did not. You don’t have to thank him, but you do have to pay his price. The profit he makes encourages him to keep planning for the future. If that hurts — it should. Maybe you’ll learn to do better next time. But the alternative to paying the higher prices isn’t paying a lower price — it is having no gasoline or water or toilet paper at all, at any price. You can try to regulate away that reality; ask the Venezuelans how that’s going for them.

In addition to being completely ignorant of how being poor works, he is basically screaming that he has no clue what it's like to live through or prepare for a hurricane. During a storm, you need enough emergency jugs of clean water to keep you and your family alive for days or weeks after a storm hits. Virtually no one keeps this much clean water just sitting around in jugs all the time. Ditto toilet paper, diapers, or other basic goods. Williamson is arguing that if you don't happen to have a full month's supply of canned beans at your disposal at all times, it's your own fault. The argument is even dumber if you consider how people buy gasoline or airline tickets: If you don't have a full tank of gas or $4,000 for airfare at the exact moment a hurricane hits, better luck next time?

The dig at Venezuela makes no sense here, because regulating prices during an emergency and regulating prices all the time are two entirely different things.

Raising prices to "ration" goods works only if everyone is unable to afford the new, post-emergency price. In a city such as Miami, that's a joke: Of course rich people will pay $40 for a case of water they don't need. Many of them paid tens of thousands of dollars to fly out of town on private jets.

The only thing these op-eds end up doing is comforting the wealthy people who typically make massive profits by draining the wallets of the poor during natural disasters: airline executives, pharmaceutical honchos who benefit when patients pay full price to refill their meds early, etc.

Price-gouging is heinous, and so are these columns.

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