A line of argument in politics in recent years, as in the great Lyndon Johnson books by Robert Caro, has held that the old saying is a little off: Power doesn’t so much corrupt, as it reveals. Power can make the doing of things easier and with less consequence, so we can see more clearly what lies underneath.
It turns out that a solar eclipse can do the same thing.
Friends of ours, who live in the upcoming eclipse totality zone, are hosting a couple of out of state eclipse-interested friends. (Our house, six miles away, is merely in 99.8 percent totality.) They’re not charging their friends any rent or room fee. As matters sit today, I call that a passed character test.
The eclipse, to be sure, is an understandable business opportunity, and there’s no harm and nothing immoral in taking some advantage of it. But at some point, somewhere along the line, it turns into greed, and totality areas all over the country have seen some ugly behavior and sad exposures of character.
There was, for example, the news story about a woman formerly from Idaho, now living near Washington, D.C., who booked an Idaho Falls hotel room back in October 2013. They had an agreement (for a fairly high room rate based on normal Idaho Falls levels). Some months ago the hotel said it wanted to raise the rate by $60; the couple reluctantly agreed. Then, earlier this month: "[The manager] started questioning us and telling us that our rate was way too low for this event and he wanted to raise our rates. My husband said, well you have already raised our rates once and we have a contract with you.”
That hotel in the news story now reportedly has rooms listed at $700 during the eclipse period. If you’re familiar with Idaho Falls lodging, you know this is not just a slight price increase. It is not even an outlier increase, or among the highest. Quite a few establishments regionally have been shooting far over $1,000 a night for rooms that ordinarily would rent for a tenth as much. (The Idaho attorney general’s office has fielded a number of complaints about room rentals.)
Okay: Room rates are, as a normal and reasonable matter, marketplace-flexible. They vary with seasons and holidays and location popularity, and they can sometimes be negotiated by late arrivals (at places with plenty of empty rooms that same night) or by third-party deals. There’s nothing holy about a particular rate.
But when rates rise abruptly, even during times of high popularity, by factors of seven or ten or more, you have to think something in the system, and in people’s willingness to simply take advantage of others and throw conventional rule books out the window, is wrong. There are human consequences. Good luck if you need to travel then for business, or visit a relative. Good luck if you’re not wealthy.
I don’t mean here to focus over-heavily on the lodging industry; lots of private homeowners are renting out their houses for a couple of days for almost unbelievable amounts. And I don’t mean to focus either just on rental rooms; the urge to suck up stray bucks seems to have become notably intense with this particular phase of the moon. (Airbnb reports an explosion of both requests for homes, and homes on offer.)
Consider what this kind of grasping reveals not only about our willingness to take advantage of others.
There are people in the totality zone who should, in bright light, take a good look in the mirror.