Texans looking for a way out of the misery of a deadly winter storm that knocked power out for millions were in for a nasty shock when looking for a hotel room to wait out the cold snap. Even modest rooms in run-of-the-mill establishments were being offered for nightly rates topping $1,000. Similarly, food shortages and water outages have led to reported hikes in the cost of essentials across the state.

Price gouging is illegal in Texas, well, during a disaster in any case. But it isn’t the legality of the practice that interests Elizabeth Brake, a scholar of disaster ethics based in Houston. Nor the claims of some contrarian economists who argue that price gouging actually helps supply and prevents hoarding. What concerns her is whether the practice is defensible on ethical grounds – especially given that those worst-hit by the practice tend to be those most vulnerable to disaster conditions.

Some Texans lucky enough to have avoided the power outages still felt the financial pain. $15,000 electricity bills confronted some residents – the result of a deregulated market passing on cost to the customers, explains Penn State energy economist Seth Blumsack.

Also today:

Matt Williams

Religion & Ethics Editor

Price gouging during disasters further shuts out those living in poverty. AP Photo/Eric Gay

In Texas, price gouging during disasters is illegal – it is also on very shaky ethical ground

Elizabeth Brake, Rice University

Some economists have defended price gouging, saying it helps increase supply and prevent against hoarding. An ethicist suggests this might be missing the point.

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