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The True Cost Of A "Free" Hotel Buffet, And Why It's Squeezing Our Economy

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]