I would be lying if I said my amygdala hasn’t gleamed cherry red and emitted fat tendrils of panic every time I’ve gone to the market over the past two weeks and found the yeast shelf totally bare.
Damn hoarders, I’ve mumbled to myself each time, teeth grinding. But by the time I get home and my rational side reasserts control, I’ve cleared my mind of any animus for shoppers who clear store counters and racks in times of disaster. Not only are most hoarders harmless, in many cases their manic purchases perform a kind of public service. In some cases, their selfishness can serve as an early warning system for the economy, heralding future needs the government and industry might otherwise overlook until extreme scarcity arrives.
Hoarders have emerged as public villains in the coronavirus drama. First there was the mope in Tennessee who tried to corner the market in hand sanitizer and got flamed by a million New York Times readers. And then there was the president himself, trying to make political hay by trotting out Attorney General William Barr at one of his variety-show press conferences to remind the public that the feds would crack down on anyone hogging medically necessary supplies. “If you have a big supply of toilet paper in your house, this is not something you have to worry about,” Barr reassured people Monday. “But if you are sitting on a warehouse with masks, surgical masks, you will be hearing a knock on your door.”
Hoarders, of course, surface every time a crippling snowstorm, hurricane, tornado, earthquake or virus strikes. In their first wave of shopping, hoarders tend to load up on perishable stuff—milk, eggs, and bread. (And toilet paper.) None of these goods are essential to survival. They’re purchased not to hedge against disaster, but to buy the illusion of comfort in an uncertain time. To give the appearance of “doing something” in a crisis. In their second wave of panic purchases, hoarders get smarter and lunge for dry goods like beans, pasta, canned goods, flour and, of course, yeast. Even so, most hoarding isn’t necessary. In my capital-area shopping experience, you can find substitutes for most of the goods in short supply—for instance, sourdough for yeast! In the long run, manufacturing and supply chains so excel at replenishing stocks that hoarders often end up holding an oversupply in their storage spaces. In the short run, the hoarders might leave some of us wanting, few of us actually starving.
If I haven’t persuaded you to stop hating hoarders, let me remind you that part of their motivation for panic buying comes from above. In this particular disaster, public health officials and politicians have urged the populace to stay home and limit trips to the grocery store to once a week. How many families shop that infrequently? None. When shopping once a week, it’s only natural to overbuy so we don’t run out of anything before our next weekly excursion. Hmmm, maybe I should buy an extra gallon of milk and another dozen eggs. Do I have enough mustard at home? Better buy a jumbo jar, just in case. We’ll use it. Hot dogs will keep in the refrigerator for weeks. Buy two packages. And so on. My family made a deliberate effort to avoid hoarding groceries, but that hasn’t kept our pantry and basement shelves from brimming with a disgusting overstock of beverages, staples, cleaning supplies and goodies, making us, well, hoarders! Even so, the grocery stores are keeping up with the demand. In the contest between scarcity vs. plenty, plenty is winning.
While the grocery hoarders are doing almost no lasting harm, it’s harder to apply the smiley face to the hoarders of medical supplies who expect to turn a profit reselling their stockpiles. But I’ll try.
Even if hoarders weren’t marking up 30-packs of N95 respirators, so essential to the medical battle, from $15 to $199 for resale online, we would still be experiencing a staggering worldwide shortage. The federal government estimates we’ll need 3.5 billion respirators in the next year. Where will they come from? 3M, the nation’s leading manufacturer, was making about 400 million respirators a year and intends to boost that number to 2 billion in 12 months. China reportedly makes about 200 million. Hoarders were among the first to notice the disparity between supply and demand, and by flashing their price signal, reveal how industry and government needed to step up. Stemming the shortage they sighted will require us to buy respirators from other manufacturers, startups and overseas makers, some of which have placed export bans on the devices to keep them available domestically.
I could find no accurate estimate of the size of the gray market for respirators, which began to take off last year when the California wildfires prompted a half-dozen tech companies to stockpile—hoard, if you prefer—millions of them for their employees. Rather than being condemned for loading up on supplies, the tech companies deserve our thanks for setting supplies away for a rainy day. Other stockpilers include the Pentagon, which has donated 5 million respirators, and the Strategic National Stockpile, which has been likewise releasing respirators from its inventory of 13 million. Even if the gray market resellers on Amazon, eBay, and elsewhere had been crafty enough to capture a week’s worth of 3M’s precrisis output—an unthinkably high estimate of about 8 million respirators—the hospital shortfall would still be stratospheric. These profiteers are more of a symptom of the shortage than the cause.
These so-called price gougers have actually done some good, as economist Tyler Cowen recently told NPR, signaling to existing manufacturers the size of the shortage and giving an added incentive to gear up and satisfy the demand at a profit. According to the Wall Street Journal, 27 companies have filed applications with the Food and Drug Administration since December to make certified masks. Not one of them is doing this as a public service, I would wager. They’re responding to the profit motive. Hoarders have also helped alert individuals, dentists, businesses and even churches to the shortage’s severity, and they’ve responded by donating their hoards to hospitals. Pornhub has even gotten into the act, donating 50,000 masks.
President Donald Trump’s executive order that has allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to prohibit the hoarding of respirators, gowns, certain medications, gloves and other medical materials or to resell them above market prices may make excellent politics, but it won’t do much to increase the supply. In fact, moves to impose an official government-approved “fair price” might deter new competitors from entering the market. Stop thinking of hoarding as a crime and start thinking of it as “retail arbitrage.” There's even a free app for it.
But never let it be said that I approve of all pack rats. News that doctors have used their medical licenses to write advance prescriptions for themselves and family to treat possible coronavirus infections does seem like a hoard too far, though I wouldn’t feel that way if civilians had the same right to prescribe for themselves. To each his own strategic stockpile!
Our tendency to castigate hoarders—whether they’re amassing toilet paper or respirators—has more to do with our sense of fair play than it does with economics or survival. Instead of scapegoating hoarders, let’s start looking at their mad caching as a positive sign that people have gotten serious about confronting disaster.
Don’t the hoarding preppers look smart now? My kingdom for a 4 oz. jar of Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast! Send pix of your stockpiles to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com and remember, you Costco customers aren’t hoarders, you’re bulk buyers just trying to save money. My email alerts stole my Twitter feed’s store of red beans, rice, vinegar and sake and put it up for sale on eBay. My resurrected RSS feed hoards nothing.