Ignorance in disasters
Suppose a New Jersey motel room rented for $125 a night prior to Hurricane Sandy's devastation. When the hurricane hits, a husband, wife and their two youngsters might seek the comfort of renting two adjoining rooms. However, when they arrive at the motel, they find that rooms now rent for $250. At that price, they might decide to make do with one room. And that decision would make a room available for another family who had to evacuate Sandy's wrath.
But New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and others condemn this as price gouging. But which is preferable for a family seeking shelter — a room available at $250 or a room unavailable at the pre-hurricane price of $125?
It's not the intention of the motel owner to make a room available for another family. He just sees an opportunity to earn more money. It was not the intention of the family of four who made do with just one room to make a room available for another evacuating family. They are just trying to save money.
That's the unappreciated benefit of freely fluctuating prices. They get people to do voluntarily what's in the social interest — conserve on goods and services that have become scarce.
Christie told merchants that price gouging during a state of emergency is illegal because “during emergencies, New Jerseyans should look out for each other — not seek to take advantage of each other.” Christie warned: “The state Division of Consumer Affairs will look closely at any and all complaints about alleged price gouging. Anyone found to have violated the law will face significant penalties.”
Christie and public officials elsewhere know better or have access to economists who inform them. But they're playing politics with people's suffering, emotionalism and economic ignorance. By the way, politicians would serve us better by focusing their energies on tax gouging.
Disasters produce ignorance in another way.
Nathan Gardels, editor of New Perspectives Quarterly, wrote an article titled “The Silver Lining of Japan's Quake,” arguing the economic “benefits” of that disaster. Even Nobel laureates are not immune from this vision. After the 2001 terrorist attack, economist Paul Krugman wrote in his New York Times column titled “Reckonings; After the Horror” that as “ghastly as it may seem to say this, the terror attack — like the original day of infamy, which brought an end to the Great Depression — could even do some economic good.” He explained that rebuilding the destruction would stimulate the economy through business investment and job creation.
Let's set one thing straight: Destruction does not create wealth. The billions of dollars that will be earned by people in the building industry and their suppliers will surely create jobs and income for those people.
But rebuilding diverts resources from other possible uses. Natural or man-made disasters always destroy wealth. Were that not the case, mankind could achieve unimaginable wealth through wars, arson, riots and other calamities.
Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Laurel Ballet student dancers entertain at Mad Hatter Tea in Unity
- Flash!: Circle Sinners and Saints; Tribute to Veterans
- Jazz musicians draw crowd at art gallery in Pittsburgh’s West End
- Junior Princess from Marshall continues community work with pasta fundraiser
- McCandless ‘Rock-a-thon Queen’ keeps on rockin’ for fundraiser
- Quantum Theatre celebrates 25 years with gala in Pittsburgh’s Union Trust Building
- Greater Pittsburgh YWCA gives Women Leadership Awards to diverse group
- Blind & Vision Rehabilitation Services of Pittsburgh honors Calgon Carbon president
- All’s shiny at City Theatre’s 40th Birthday Bash
- Unquestionable courage & sacrifice
- Mt. Hope Presbyterian expands ‘Wednesdays on the Lawn’ with farmer’s market