What does it say about us as a nation that the two products most in demand by average consumers during this coronavirus crisis are toilet paper and 9mm bullets? What might we gain by understanding the causes of these shortages so we could prevent them from happening again?
First, toilet paper. In 1973, Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show made the inaccurate claim that “America has an acute shortage of toilet paper.” And then we did.
Johnny was being funny, but the effect was dramatic. With uncanny timing, the Atlantic recently released a video (youtu.be/rX_FTiRB5QI) by Brian Gersten tracing the sequence of events and social and economic conditions at a time of the threat of a deep recession and political unrest that became a nexus out of which rumors spread. People believed the rumors–even after CEOs of paper companies and national TV anchors reported there was no shortage–and bought toilet paper until the supply ran out.
While the great toilet paper scare of 1973 demonstrates the power of rumors to influence consumer behavior, it also teaches us that uncertainty, lack of trust in basic institutions, and the speed with which information and misinformation can travel in a society can contribute to panic buying and hoarding.
In the 2020 toilet paper shortage, we have threats to the economy and uncertainty about how vulnerable we are. We pass along information even faster now than in 1973, and panic buying is happening.
There is an objective cause to the shortage: a supply-chain bottleneck. People are staying at home and using their own toilet paper, not their employers’. And when the kids are not using toilet paper at school, they are using mom’s and dad’s.
Commercial usage is down, and private usage is up. Contracts have to be revised to shift product delivery. It’s a valued and bartered product, even though manufacturers assure us that there is plenty.
Second, guns and bullets. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the gun industry is a $50 billion part of the American economy, and the National Rifle Association wields significant lobbying power. Owning a gun for some is not only a constitutional right but a matter of personal safety.
During the Obama years, thanks in part to the constant meme from the NRA that gun confiscation and limits on gun rights were imminent, gun sales reached record levels. In spite of pleas to Congress from the president after high-profile mass shootings, no legislation passed, and sales of guns and related products remained high.
Then came Donald Trump, champion of the Second Amendment. Fears subsided among gun owners, hunters and recreational shooters, and sales of gun products plummeted. Representatives of the gun industry applauded Trump for his unwavering stance on the Second Amendment, but reluctantly admitted he is bad for business. Who would believe the NRA meme that guns will be taken away as long as Trump is president?
For years medical scientists have warned of a coming pandemic, a consequence of global capitalism and the international tourist industry, but the 2020 coronavirus surprised the public and worried the gun community. Amid debate about whether gun shops are essential industries, gun sales are up, and with that the purchase of ammunition.
Perhaps people envision fending off zombie-like neighbors in search of scarce food, or maybe it is just that buying a gun makes some feel they are doing something about the crisis. Whatever the reason, there is a strong demand for 9mm bullets, which means we can’t make them fast enough.
So what have we learned about society? Shortages can be explained, sometimes in purely economic terms and in other times by societal conditions. What we often take for granted as established order–authorities will make sure we have everything we need–may turn out to be fragile and volatile in the face of a crisis such as a pandemic. Some of the routines of everyday life, when disrupted, have consequences that rattle the economy, and apparently running out of TP is one of them.
For those whose everyday life involves guns, disruptions may cause alarm. This is because for many Americans, the gun is a symbol of self-reliance, a bulwark against threats from others and even government intervention in private affairs. Any condition that menaces the routine of everyday life challenges what we take for granted and may become a motivation for panic buying.
How may we prevent these shortages? Short of a roaring economy and increased confidence in virtually everything we do, the answer is a resurgence of trust in the institutions of society. This won’t be easy since public opinion polls have documented a steep decline in trust in core institutions–so steep that sociologists call the situation a legitimation crisis, by which they mean public policy and practice never get the support of a critical consensus, and hence collective action is never fully accepted as legitimate.
But if we trust policies and practices laid out by the Centers for Disease Control, medical science and elected leaders, there will be no shortages of TP and bullets.
Will we be better prepared for the next pandemic, or will we continue to distrust collective solutions while seeking refuge in distinct groups with different interpretations of what happened, and thereby continue to be vulnerable to panic and anxiety? The answer is a matter of trust in our basic institutions.
Jeffrey E. Nash is a retired sociologist, and Dina C. Nash is a retired social worker and criminologist. They live in Maumelle.
Editorial on 04/13/2020