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The True Cost Of A “Free” Hotel Buffet, And Why It’s Squeezing Our Economy

A recent visit to a free hotel buffet got me thinking about the broadly subsidized costs of such things. As the debt-ceiling dialogue revealed, the ethos of wanting things cheap or free has saturated our political culture. Cheaper government now, many clearly think, won’t entail costs later. But isn’t everyone–including me–indirectly paying?

Last weekend, my oldest son played in a baseball tournament at the
somewhat misnamed “Sports at the Beach.” A quick Internet search
revealed that the fields were nearly 20 miles from Rehobeth Beach. Thinking that we wanted to be closer to the games, we decided to stay in
Georgetown, Delaware. The only hotel there with a pool–a must for
kids–was at the Comfort Inn. Of course, the price wasn’t bad and the
room included, as the website boasted, a “free hot breakfast.” 

After two days of making our own waffles, serving our own
microwaved sausages and pre-made perfectly round egg circles, along with
donuts, danish, and Froot Loops, I began to think–as the debate
over the debt ceiling blared on televisions in the background–about real costs of free and cheap. 

Everything at the hotel was disposable. The cups and dishes
were paper or plastic and the flimsy white utensils were also plastics. For my family of four, we went through three
large paper plates, two small paper plates, three paper bowls, four paper
cups, two plastic lids, seven plastic cups, five forks (two broke), three knives,
three spoons, and one plastic yogurt cup–all in one breakfast. We had a small spill, so that
used up more than 10 napkins as well. So what were the real costs of this “free” and “cheap” meal?  

Well,
in some ways, the first cost was jobs. In the days before low-priced hotel chains offered “free” breakfasts, we
would have stayed at a Howard Johnson or a
family-owned hotel. We probably would have gone out for breakfast and
spent about $40 for our pancakes, juice, coffee, and
omelettes. Instead of us doing the cooking ourselves,  as was the case with the waffles, someone else would have cooked the
food and served the meals and got paid to do it. Now these aren’t, and never
were, glamorous jobs, but there is a way in which the culture of cheap
is closely related to the really dangerous culture of cutting jobs. Paying might mean breakfast costs more (although I’ve no doubt the cost of the “free” breakfast was baked into our hotel bill), but it also circulates money and
generates revenues…the part of the debt-ceiling debate that some would
say got far too little attention.  

What about all the trash generated by our free breakfasts? As we
all know from watching any buffet line, the psychology of “free” means
we all take more, way more than need or often will eat. This adds to
the trash we produce (and the calories we consume. More on that
below.) Now who pays for that? All those paper plates and cups and
half-eaten waffles have to go somewhere. First stop is the trash. All
this waste, in turn, weighs down the plastic trash bags (a petroleum
product, by the way.) These in turn weigh down garbage trucks (again
requiring more gasoline).  Each time we use gas or petroleum, we are
implicated in our costly foreign policy, no? Another cost. And then
there is all that trash that goes into the landfills or gets burned up
and floats through the air. Cities, counties, and states pay for this
and have deal with the trash and the pollution. In a sense, we are all
subsidizing cheap, here.

Same with the food. Except for a few sad-looking apples and maybe
the Raisin Bran-like cereal, there wasn’t anything at the breakfast table that you could confuse with healthy. Belgian waffles
from a mix, donuts, sausage, and those strange-looking little egg
saucers the size and thickness of air hockey disks: These are all high
fat, sugar-laden foods, just the kinds of foods that add to the our
growing national health crisis. As numerous commentators have pointed
out, we are, as a nation, growing bigger all the time and there is
nothing free here. By some estimates, a fifth of the nation’s health
care costs go toward paying for the illnesses and treatment related to
diabetes, heart disease, and obesity-related ailments, and this too is
a cost we all surely share. 

The allure of cheap isn’t just about a “free” breakfast. As the debt ceiling dialogue revealed, it has saturated our
political culture. Cheaper government now, many clearly think, won’t
entail costs later. But are they right? Isn’t everyone–including me–indirectly
paying for my “free hot breakfast”? Isn’t cheap just a
form of deferred spending? This should be the basis of a new
national conversation, a real honest discussion of the long-term costs
of cheap, and whether we can actually afford them.   

[Image: Flickr user ideolector]

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