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Could price gouging during a crisis actually be moral?
Price gouging is prohibited in 34 US states and Washington D.C. But two scholars ask whether that's the way it should be.
- Paper products, hand sanitizer, masks, and cleaning wipes—all are in high demand and short supply during the COVID-19 crisis.
- Price gougers are viewed as villains in this crisis—but two scholars argue that price gouging is, in most cases, morally permissible.
- Increased prices prevent unnecessary hoarding. Buyers purchase only what they need when they need it. Also, producers are incentivized to make more. When the supply rises, prices will fall.
At the Safeway grocery store in Southwest Washington, D.C., the toilet paper and paper towels section has been empty for most of the last two months. When the store does restock, supplies don't last long on the shelves. "Do you know if they have paper towels?" a pedestrian outside the store asked a stranger exiting the Safeway in late April. The answer was no: "Still out."
Paper products, hand sanitizer, masks, and cleaning wipes—all are in high demand and short supply during the COVID-19 crisis. Shoppers across the country are facing empty shelves and out-of-stock signs.
But any seller who reacts to current crisis conditions by increasing prices on in-demand products may be committing a crime. Thirty-four states have laws against price gouging. In March, a bipartisan group of state attorneys general wrote a letter urging online marketplaces to crack down on price spikes.
"[W]hile we appreciate reports of the efforts made by platforms and online retailers to crack down on price gouging as the American community faces an unprecedented public health crisis, we are calling on you to do more at a time that requires national unity," the letter said.
A price gouger makes a good temporary boogeyman. One could look at high prices during an emergency and think: They're trying to profit off of my desperation.
What exactly is price gouging, and what distinguishes it from a normal price increase? New York Attorney General Letitia James told NPR that "there's no definitive answer" but "you know it when you see it—[it's] when individuals are taking advantage of the market, particularly when a neighboring store is selling the same product for much less." New York's price gouging complaint form, which consumers can use to report retailers, defines it as "unconscionably excessive pricing of necessary consumer goods and services during any abnormal disruption of the market." However different states might define it, price gouging is widely understood to be exploitative, sleazy, and heartless. Laws against it are popular.
But Michael Munger, professor of political science at Duke University, says that high prices are a crucial part of dealing with scarcity during an emergency.
"If you use the police to keep prices artificially low, it makes the problem of scarcity much worse," Munger says in a short Institute for Humane Studies video on price gouging. Price gouging during an emergency allows more people to get what they need as soon as possible. "And that's true even for those who can't afford the gouger's prices," Munger explains.
How? Increased prices prevent unnecessary hoarding. Buyers purchase only what they need when they need it. Also, producers are incentivized to make more. When the supply rises, prices will fall.
"Price gouging laws keep the shelves empty longer," Munger says.
Matt Zwolinski, professor of philosophy at the University of San Diego, argues in his paper "The Ethics of Price Gouging" that "most, though not all, cases of price gouging are at least morally permissible, if not morally praise-worthy."
"Relative to the baseline of no exchange at all, the gouger's proposal stands to improve the lot of the buyer, not to worsen it," Zwolinski writes. If a buyer purchases a product at an exceptionally high price during an emergency, the buyer has decided that their emergency need justifies the high price. As Zwolinski puts it: "[W]hile the price of generators might rise dramatically in the wake of a disaster which knocks out power to a certain population, so too does the need people have for generators." A seller who raises prices did not create the buyer's increased need; he or she is merely reacting to it.
This doesn't mean, of course, that the price gouger is motivated by altruism. "[T]he fact that there are good arguments to be made for the moral permissibility of price gouging in certain cases does not mean that those who actually engage in the practice are motivated by these considerations," Zwolinski writes. But that's also true of normal market activity: As Adam Smith says in The Wealth of Nations, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest." A price gouger makes a good temporary boogeyman. One could look at high prices during an emergency and think: They're trying to profit off of my desperation.
But if we heed the work of scholars like Michael Munger and Matt Zwolinski, we might begin to see price gouging as a rational and necessary part of emergency response. During normal times, a pack of hand sanitizer might cost the same as a bottle of red wine. But right now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, does anyone place nearly the same value on a bottle of wine as on a pack of hand sanitizer? By using the law to forcefully keep prices below what people would pay in an emergency, states enable hoarding. For Americans who would like to buy hand sanitizer—or paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning wipes, or masks—and can't find any, price gouging laws are a cold comfort. Most would rather have the option of paying increased prices than no options at all.
The virus is unlike anything many people have ever experienced.
- The public Facebook group, Survivor Corps, is a place where long haulers and survivors congregate.
- Months after recovering from COVID-19, some are suffering from joint pain, hair loss, and cognitive issues.
- These cautionary tales are important in a county where many remain skeptical over the dangers of this virus.
Coronavirus - The Latest: The Covid-19 'long-haulers'<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="73d1813a9b48841241c01857476e48b4"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/kUyKpu-djdc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><strong>I've been out of the hospital</strong> from COVID-19 for four weeks now and started having severe pain in my big toe, almost like I stepped on a piece of glass or have a severely ingrown toenail—I don't and there's no cut or intrusion. Now my toe is really swollen and red. It hurts to walk or put any pressure on it. Is this what's called COVID toe, and what's the protocol?</p><p><strong>I am on 18 days in bed</strong> with COVID. Luckily, I've been able to manage this horrible beast from home (so far). I actually thought I was feeling better yesterday, and then today I'm going in another direction. I'm having terrible pain when I breathe (right side), and I'm exhausted. I just finished Augmentin, and a week prior, a Z-Pak. I have an inhaler. Today, my doctor wants me to start a Medrol Dosepak (steroids). Has anyone else tried this and has it helped? I'm desperate to try anything right now as long as I can get better. Please give me your thoughts on the steroids; I'm seeing mixed reviews in here.</p><p> <strong>I've been sick with COVID symptoms</strong> for 22 weeks. I'm not getting better. My original symptoms haven't gone away, and I just develop new ones every few weeks. I read an article on three immune responses to this virus. 1) Overactive immune response 2) Normal immune response 3) little or no immune response.</p><p>I am having little or no immune response to this virus.</p><p>It's taking over my body slowly. My primary doctor can't help me. My family and husband don't believe my symptoms and I have nowhere to turn. </p><p>I am so frightened.</p><p><strong>How many of you are experiencing hair loss</strong>, especially hair loss after 5 months? I'm shedding like a dog. </p><p><strong>I had COVID in June</strong>. At least 15 straight days in bed. No smell, no taste except certain spices. I've been diagnosed with two eye conditions now. Fatigue won't go away. Simple things like unloading the dishwasher or taking a shower exhaust me; I need to sit down. Has anyone recovered from these symptoms? If so, how long did it take?</p><p><strong>Has anyone experienced increased joint pain</strong>, specifically in your hands, after COVID? I've had some joint pain in the past, but never this much. It's been four months since I had the virus and the pain seems to have increased since then. [<em>147 comments on this, nearly every one verifying joint pain, especially in hands, ankles, and elbows</em>.]</p>
Medics wait to transport a woman with possible Covid-19 symptoms to the hospital on August 07, 2020 in Austin, Texas.
Photo by John Moore/Getty Images<p><strong>I had COVID symptoms for 2.5 weeks</strong> in March (could not get tested). I was a lot better for two months and then started the whole ordeal again 70 days ago (and am still sick). I have been to the ER twice and told that they think I have COVID. My clinic nurse said the same thing, as did my friend, who is an Urgent Care doctor.</p><p>I have had weeks where my fever went away and other symptoms decreased. But several times now, it comes back full force with a vengeance. The roller coaster is depressing. </p><p><strong>I was fortunate enough to be accepted </strong>into the Mt. Sinai post-COVID treatment program and was really happy to have some experts keep an eye on my long-term effects. Four months after COVID, my EKG came back normal, my antibodies high, and my bloodwork normal. My next tests were a lung function test and CT scan to see if there's long-term damage from the pneumonia. I just got a letter from my health insurance company, Oxford, rejecting the cost of the CT scan. I'm so disappointed. Is anyone else having their COVID treatments rejected by health insurance?</p><p><strong>I'm new here and it looks I'm one of the youngins</strong> in the group (19 btw). I got COVID about a month ago, and I got out of quarantine about a week-and-a-half ago, and I still have yet to see any of my friends. I wouldn't say I'm super popular but I do have a lot of friends, so I thought most of them would want to see me. I was super wrong. The stigma around COVID, especially with the younger demographic, was a joke before I got it in my friend group. Every single one of my friends didn't take it seriously and thought it would never appear in anyone they knew. When I got the virus it sent them all into shock and a couple of them hated me saying it was all my fault telling me that I shouldn't leave my house for a couple months and to not talk to them until next year. Now that I'm fully recovered I thought some friends would want to see me, but actually nobody does. </p><p><strong>Rapid heart rate when standing</strong> (160s-170s). Advice on how to deal with it? Twenty-three days from a positive test. Fever is pretty much gone but I'm trying to get back on my feet, literally. I'm kind of at a loss—whether this is temporary or I should ask my doctor for certain tests. My heart rate is elevated even when lying down (and is tolerable) but even more elevated when sitting. Seems like this isn't just "fatigue."</p><p><strong>My husband recovered from COVID</strong> last month but has been in a lot of pain. Weak and tired all the time. He gets tingly fingers and hands and feet and his ankles feel weak, like his bones are brittle. Has anyone else had this? He's rolled his ankles two or three times since and this has never happened before. His body just feels worn out and exhausted all the time, like he's a 70-year-old man, and he's only 34.</p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Researchers are using technology to make visual the complex concepts of racism, as well as its political and social consequences.
- Often thought of first as gaming tech, virtual reality has been increasingly used in research as a tool for mimicking real-life scenarios and experiences in a safe and controlled environment.
- Focusing on issues of oppression and the ripple affect it has throughout America's political, educational, and social systems, Dr. Courtney D. Cogburn of Columbia University School of Social Work and her team developed a VR experience that gives users the opportunity to "walk a mile" in the shoes of a black man as he faces racism at three stages in his life: as a child, during adolescence, and as an adult.
- Cogburn says that the goal is to show how these "interwoven oppressions" continue to shape the world beyond our individual experiences. "I think the most important and powerful human superpower is critical consciousness," she says. "And that is the ability to think, be aware and think critically about the world and people around you...it's not so much about the interpersonal 'Do I feel bad, do I like you?'—it's more 'Do I see the world as it is? Am I thinking critically about it and engaging it?'"
President Vladimir Putin announces approval of Russia's coronavirus vaccine but scientists warn it may be unsafe.
A new coronavirus vaccine on display at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Russian Direct Investment Fund via AP
Medical workers draw blood from volunteers participating in a trial of a coronavirus vaccine at the Budenko Main Military Hospital outside Moscow, Russia.
Credit: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP
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