The Cost of Cheap in the Morning

Last weekend, my oldest son played in a baseball tournament at the somewhat misnamed venue, “Sports at the Beach.” A quick internet search revealed that the fields were nearly twenty 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 your own microwaved sausage and pre-made perfectly round egg circles along with donuts, danish, and Fruit Loops, I began to think — with the debate over the debt ceiling blaring on the televisions in the background — about real costs of free and cheap.

Everything at the Comfort Inn 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 at one breakfast, three large paper plates, two small paper plates, three paper bowls, two paper cups (plus two more in the room), two plastic lids, four plastic cups (plus three more from the room), five forks (two broke) , three knives, three spoons, and one plastic yogurt cup. We had a small spill so that used more than 10 napkins as well.

So what were the costs of this free and cheap meal I wondered?

Well, in some ways, the first thing is jobs. In the old days before the Comfort Inn and the automated check out at the Rite Aid, I guess we would have stayed at a Howard Johnson (or something like that) or a family owned motel. We probably would have gone our for breakfast and spent in today’s dollars $40 for our pancakes, juice, coffee, and omelets. Instead of us doing the work including the cooking ourselves as was the case with the waffles, someone else would have cooked the food and served the meals and got paid. 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, 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 consumer. More on that below.) Now who pays for that? All those paper plates and cups and half eaten waffles have to do 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 Brand like cereal, there wasn’t anything at the Comfort Inn 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 towards 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.

Really the allure of cheap isn’t just a Comfort Inn thing or a Wal Mart thing. 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 indirectly paying for my Comfort Inn “free hot breakfast”? Isn’t cheap just a form of deferred spending? Shouldn’t this be the basis of a new national conversation — a real honest discussion of the long-term costs of cheap and if we can afford them?