When disaster strikes, money flows. It comes in many forms. Charity organizations spend their loose change to provide relief. They send food, supplies, and aid purchased with donator dollars. The government deploys the National Guard, paid with taxpayer money.

National Guard Hurricane Harvey
National Guard service members doing their part after Harvey.

Some companies step up as decent human beings and provide free/cheap services and goods for the victims. Less savory organizations take advantage of victims and exploit them for every dollar they can squeeze. Either way, Capitalism is inextricably linked to disaster relief in America.

The recent hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, have left destruction in their wake. That destruction brought out the best and the worst in people and companies. The news media flooded with tales of individual heroism in the wake of the disasters. Beneath that heartwarming news, outcries of injustice were popping up on social media. Businesses, both big and small, were trying to get away with price gouging.

The Airline Offenders

One of the most prominent cases of price gouging came from big-name Airlines, specifically Delta. Screenshots of exorbitantly priced plane tickets began circulating on Twitter as Hurricane Irma approached South Florida.

Hurricane Capitalism
Seems reasonable.

The airlines were quick to deny the accusations. They blamed the price hikes on other websites, computer glitches, automatic algorithms, and haters. The evidence is clear though — Delta and other airlines exponentially increased their ticket prices during the disaster. They tried to make a profit off suffering citizens. Delta is a prime example of Capitalism gone wrong. Not all airline companies are that awful though.

The Good Samaritans

Not all the airlines were jerks. JetBlue capped all flights out of Florida at $99. American Airlines offered similarly priced flights, though they were not above a little price gouging. Furthermore, both companies drastically increased the number of flights leaving Florida, up until the very last minute before Irma hit. They went out of their way to help people avoid a natural disaster. Why?

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Elon Musk benevolant Businessman
They’re not ALL terrible people.

Maybe there are some good capitalist executives in the world — or maybe they tried to buy a good public reputation. Either way, actions speak louder than words. Jetblue and American Airlines did a good thing. Regardless of their motivation, they helped thousands of potential disaster victims evacuate. They prove that big corporations are not all evil monsters. Hopefully.

Marketing For Loyalty

Cynics on the internet are less hopeful. Those cynics suspect that big businesses are using their “Good Samaritan” behavior as a marketing strategy. The big businesses do something nice and tell the media all about it to improve their reputation.

Joel Osteen Corrupt Money
Some are just arseholes.

One example is Capital One’s kind act of donating $150 to its clients who were hit by Hurricane Irma. On the surface, this is a kind act of providing relief to victims. However, if you over-analyze, it could be seen as a cheap form of customer retention. $150 per client is an incredibly cheap price to pay for a client’s loyalty.

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The Good Samaritan acts of other big companies can be analyzed in the same vein. Are they actually aiding disaster victims out of the goodness of their heart, or are they trying to buy customer loyalty on the cheap? Personally, I do not care. If companies want to compete for my loyalty by outdoing each other’s acts of kindness, I say, go right ahead.

The Not-So-Good Samaritans

Price gouging reared its ugly head amid the kindnesses. Some less scrupulous business owners decided to take advantage of disaster victims for a quick buck.

Water Bottle Price Gouging Hurricanes
Don’t be that business.

The most common horror story is packs of water selling for $100 at gas stations and corner stores. Desperate Americans must pay exorbitant prices for basic necessities that they will need to survive. Not only is this morally disgusting, but it’s also illegal in both Florida and Texas.

Unfortunately, not all price gouging is evident. An insidious and common example is inflated gas prices in and near the disaster zones. Gas stations can get away with it because, realistically, there’s not much that can be done to stop them. When millions of people are evacuating and need gas, they will buy it regardless of the price. Gas-stations, in general, are sleazy about price gouging; but, is price gouging really a terrible thing?

The Free Market Argument

An essay published by Brooklyn Law Review argues that price gouging is beneficial in a free market environment. The argument has two parts. First, if the price of necessities rises exponentially during a disaster, people will not buy more than they need. This means that a shortage of essentials will be less likely to occur. That logic is a bit shaky, but it might prevent situations like this:

Hurricane Capitalism
No, you do not need 200 water bottles, Kevin.

The second part of the argument is all about profits. If goods like water and canned foods are selling for exponentially more than usual, retailers are going to do everything in their power to keep those goods on the shelves. Some companies already do this out of the goodness in their hearts(in theory). For the rest of the companies, price gouging provides a monetary incentive to deliver supplies to areas affected by disasters.

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There’s no way to say whether or not free market regulation works. The theory of price gouging is interesting. It also exemplifies capitalism’s nastier side. In capitalism, there is no room for empathy. Businesses help people only when profit is involved.

If saving lives — or saving the environment — will not make money, businesses will not bother. This cold logic is, perhaps, the greatest argument against capitalism as a pervasive system of economics.

Rise Of Heroes

In contrast to cold-hearted capitalist logic, individual heroism was rampant during Harvey and Irma. A whole lot of ordinary people proved that disaster does make us stronger. Ordinary citizens acted like heroes during Hurricanes Irma and Harvey. Teachers kept disaster shelters afloat. Police officers worked overtime to rescue people and animals from floodwater (except for that “hot cop” who went viral — turns out he’s an anti-semitic racist). A preacher went above and beyond, rescuing people trapped in cars.

Hurricane Harvey Preacher Checking Cars
A preacher in Houston, Texas, checks cars for trapped victims of Hurricane Harvey

Americans went out into flooded streets to rescue those in need. They proved that capitalism does not define America. These Americans showed the world that in spite of the media, Americans are good people at heart who will brave danger and disaster to help each other in times of crisis.

The heroism wasn’t limited to floodwater rescues. Some people were heroic in the aftermath, helping to clear the roads and restore order after the storm. One nun in Miami-Dade county took up a chainsaw to clear the roads. Civil servants worked around the clock to keep the cities running in the destructive aftermath of the storms. People of all different backgrounds stepped up to hold America together after the hurricanes.

Hurricane Capitalism
Not all heroes wear capes.

American Values

Natural disasters and money are tangled inextricably in America. Capitalism brings money into the disaster zones — and takes away a whole lot more. In Capitalist America, natural disasters are just another opportunity for profit to big businesses. Some businesses defy that logic and showcase their humanity in the face of tragedy.

Unfortunately, the majority of businesses do not. There is a stark contrast between the heroic acts of individuals and the greedy actions of corporations. Everyday Americans do everything in their power to help each other when disaster strikes. Big corporations do the bare minimum. Actions speak louder than words, and the actions of these two groups shout loud and clear where America’s values lie.

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