One hundred dollars for two dozen water bottles, $20 for a gallon of gas and $8 for a single bottle of water. These outrageous prices seem to have popped out of a dystopia, but are actually the work of two interrelated horrors plaguing the American South and Southeast right now: price gouging and hurricanes.
Price gouging, the sharp inflation of survival-related goods such as water and gasoline, is a scourge that only adds to the suffering of people in disaster-stricken areas. On top of worrying about how their life’s possessions are going to weather the storm, those facing natural disasters must deplete their savings in an attempt to access necessities whose prices have been jacked up ten times or more.
This act of rampant capitalist greed is reprehensible on the level of local convenience stores, of course, but larger retailers like Best Buy and Amazon are under fire on social media as well, thanks to consumers who document franchise misconduct and take it to the Internet, seeking justice.
Airlines are also under fire for exhibiting skyrocketing prices — tickets from Miami to LA were a whopping $2,370 over the weekend — but after viral Twitter eviscerations, both American Airlines and JetBlue are capping some one-way flights out of Florida at $99.
One would think that the airline debacles as well as reports of gas prices ranging anywhere from $8 to $35 per gallon would evoke the same horrified response in everyone, but articles in defense of price gouging proliferated on multiple platforms — the precursor being a now-deleted op-ed in Forbes.
Tim Worstall, the op-ed writer, insisted that price gouging benefits consumers by raising prices enough that others can’t buy out the product and hike up prices themselves, but he misses a crucial point: price gouging is a question of business ethics, not economic theory.
The likelihood of a greedy consumer responding to an impending hurricane by buying out a store’s entire stock of flashlights, so they can make a profit off of their fellow people is relatively low. It is far likelier that people are stocking up on necessities for their own safety and survival, and to exploit vulnerable populations by forcing them to pay tenfold the standard price for the barest of necessities, like water, is reprehensible.
In response to calls flooding price gouging hotlines, states such as Florida, Texas and South Carolina are upholding laws against this practice, and those caught could face fines up to $25,000 depending on the frequency of the act, according to USA Today.
While the response of states in times of crisis is comforting, price gouging has a far more nefarious and unexplored effect year round on citizens of remote areas, such as Alaska.
Prices for food remain high in Alaska without the stress of a natural disaster, and in Nome, a single bell pepper goes for $2.99 and a honeydew melon can cost $14, according to National Geographic. These high food prices cripple indigenous communities and prompt them to rely on unorthodox methods (by non-Native standards) to feed themselves.
These methods came under fire when an Alaskan teen’s successful whaling expedition went viral, inundating him in death threats, according to Asia One. Though animal rights activists find it horrifying that indigenous communities still hunt whales, for many native Alaskans, it is a part of their culture as much as it is a necessity for survival in the face of price gouging.
The Alaskan government sought to investigate gas price gouging in 2016, after numerous complaints rolled in about prices going up in the state while the rest of the country’s went down. As other oil refineries closed down in the state, concerns that the remaining refinery, Tesoro Alaska, was violating antitrust protocols bubbled up once more.
However, since July of last year, no headway has been made in trying to thwart this monopolization of the market, and Alaskans remain in the same price-gouged market as ever before.
To pretend the free market is dynamic enough to respond to crises in an empathetic way is ineffective at best and fatal at worst. Whether the region is in the midst of a hurricane or monopolized in the middle of nowhere, governments must step in and stamp out price gouging to protect consumers from the corporate greed at all levels.
Aroog Khaliq is a freshman from Overland Park studying behavioral neuroscience.
— Edited by Danya Issawi