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Rethinking the Land of Plenty

Rethinking the Land of Plenty

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Froma Harrop

Froma Harrop

Not that long ago, American shoppers cleaned store shelves of toilet paper. Pandemic panic fueled a run on toilet paper, the point of which was never clear.

The bicycle shortage, on the other hand, made some sense. With the lockdown forcing millions to stay at home, bikes offered exercise, safe outdoor activity. Many stores used to display every bicycle size, color, use and price range right on the sales floor. That practice has disappeared.

Pandemic disruptions made Americans question whether this is truly the Land of Plenty. I, for one, was amazed to learn that I couldn't easily obtain toner for my Brother printer — not at the office supply store, not online. I thought these cartridges flowed like water.

There's apparently a shortage of ketchup packets. The reason is the surge in demand, as traditional restaurants started doing more takeout and delivery business during the pandemic. Heinz is increasing ketchup packet production by 25%, so the crisis should soon end.

It's interesting that though COVID-19 is in retreat, shortages continue. The virus is only partly at fault. Barron's laid blame on decades of companies "fetishizing efficiency."

Supply chain managers had moved to just-in-time buying of things needed to make their products, preserving cash that otherwise would have been spent on inventory kept in warehouses. Their land-of-plenty assumption was that what they wanted or needed could be easily and quickly obtained.

Similarly, retailers no longer stocked merchandise in the back. They put it all on the floor in the belief that should they need, say, more La-Z-Boy recliners, they could get them shipped right over the next day or so.

There are ordinary supply chain disruptions not directly tied to the pandemic. The chlorine tablets used in swimming pools are in short supply because Hurricane Laura set off a devastating fire at BioLab's chlorine tablet-making plant.

Burger King has had problems providing pickles, not because there's any shortage of cucumbers but because pickle jars have been tied up in the supply chain.

A cyberattack against JBS, the world's largest meat supplier, has disrupted the meat supply chains. A similar attack on the Colonial Pipeline led to temporary gasoline shortages in several states.

Then there are just spikes in consumer desires. Chicken breast prices have doubled this year. The reason is high demand relative to chicken supply.

Homebuilders are now furiously trying to meet high demand, at least in part pandemic-related. As a result, they are struggling to find appliances, which are also in demand. Thus, there are shortages of mass-market Whirlpool and Frigidaire ranges and refrigerators -- but also super expensive Wolf ranges and Sub-Zero refrigerators.

You want a Sub-Zero? You demand a Sub-Zero? Well, you can roll on the floor kicking your feet and wave a wad of cash and you still just may have to wait awhile.

A post-pandemic surge in demand for products with a computerized component has worsened an ongoing shortage of computer chips. Apple, for example, says the scarcity of semiconductors could cost it as much as $4 billion in revenues this quarter.

There is never a shortage of wacky right-wing explanations for ordinary economic phenomena. When Chick-fil-A had trouble obtaining enough of its sauce, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt blamed "Joe Biden's radical liberal policies" for the deficit. Asked where the connection was, Stitt came up short, but he did use the occasion to ask people to send him money.

By the way, there's no shortage of toilet paper rolls at the moment. But a shortage of shipping containers could very well disrupt the flow of wood pulp needed to make them.

We who got comfortable in the Land of Plenty may have to change our assumptions.

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