Who’s Worse, Price Gougers or Hoarders?

by James A. Bacon

My wife and I were slow to stock up on CoronApocalypse survival supplies — hand sanitizers, masks, rubber gloves… toilet paper. Big mistake. Now we’re running low on toilet paper, and we’re getting nervous. The shelves are empty of paper-supply products at every store we’ve visited. Except paper napkins. You can still get those. I wouldn’t advise trying to flush them down the toilet, though.

Getting word that Kroger would re-stock early Friday morning, my wife made an emergency run around 8:30 a.m. in the hope of snagging a pack or two. Too late. The shelves were bare.

Meanwhile, Virginia’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, has announced his determination to protect citizens against price gouging. Said the AG in a press release last week:

Virginia law offers protections for folks who find themselves in need of things like medicines, cleaning products, hand sanitizers and other necessities during a public health crisis. I would encourage all Virginians to pay attention to any prices that seem too high, and contact my office as soon as possible if you think someone may be illegally overcharging for necessary goods or running a scam.

Four days ago, WAVY TV reported that the AG’s office had received about 30 complaints of possible price gouging. Here’s my question: If we’re going to prosecute people for “price gouging” — raising prices to “unconscionable” levels — shouldn’t we also prosecute people for hoarding? Frankly, who in our current crisis is the bigger menace to society — the price gougers or the hoarders?

In times like this, say the better angels of our nature, we should all share with those in greatest need. I like that idea — those in greatest need of toilet paper soon may include me. I can see myself knocking on the neighbor’s door and pleading, “Bother, can you spare a roll?”

But speaking realistically, people are not always inclined to be charitable when their health and personal hygiene are at stake. Most people aren’t hoarding toilet paper because they plan to turn around and sell six-packs for outrageous prices on eBay. They’re stockpiling rolls because they’re terrified of running out. Indeed, having packed their pantries full, they’re still snatching up more… even as their fellow citizens go wanting. Now that’s unconscionable!

How do we discourage this kind of anti-social behavior? One way would be to allow retailers to raise the friggin’ price of toilet paper. Raising the price of something in order to conserve it is an economic concept well known in other arenas. Environmentalists, for example, are keen to raise the price of gasoline and electricity to conserve energy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Raising retail prices discourages hoarding. It’s one thing for a hoarder to pay $9 for a six-pack of ultra-soft, double-ply bath tissue. It would be quite another thing to pay, say, $18. The hoarder would make the mental calculation: If I pay $18 for a pack today, it might be worth only $9 three or four weeks from now. Do I really need a year’s supply? Maybe I ought to leave those rolls on the shelf so some lost soul like Jim Bacon can buy them.

Another thing happens when the price doubles. People use less toilet paper. Yes, the tightwads among us count every square. Responding thus to price signals, we stretch supplies. That is a good thing in times of scarcity.

Admittedly, there are people who raise our hackles by charging what one might deem “unconscionable” prices. Checking Google, I see that someone on eBay is charging $37.99 for a sixpack of Great Value brand ultra strong premium toilet tissue. What a jerk.

However, he won’ t be profiteering long. After enough people have stuffed enough closets with enough TP, and after the TP manufacturers crank up production and flood the market, demand will fall, supply will rise, and prices will return to normal — or below normal. And the hoarders and profiteers will get their just desserts. The market will teach the price gougers a lesson long before Mark Herring does.

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5 responses to “Who’s Worse, Price Gougers or Hoarders?”

  1. djrippert Avatar

    Too bad you don’t live near the Eastern Shore of Maryland. I have “product”.
    Years of inadvertent overstocking of basic supplies left me with about 150 rolls of toilet paper. None were purchased over the last six months. However, too many young adults sons and their friends visiting my home last Fall left me with a deficit of vodka. I have alerted my neighbors to the situation and expect to start bartering soon.

  2. CrazyJD Avatar

    Any time you screw around with the laws of supply and demand, you invite very very bad results. Democrats are famous for that conceit. Caveat for Larry’s sake: at least one Republican has stumbled into wage price controls. In one of the worst moves of his presidency (other than going off the gold standard) Nixon did it in August 1971. His chief economic advisor, Paul McCracken, went wobbly in opposing such controls and advised a 90 day temporary freeze.

    We all know what happened to THAT plan: controls weren’t lifted until 3 years later. Oh, and McDonald’s “new product”, the 1/4 pounder with cheese, replaced the Big Mac as the most promoted product at McDonald’s, all in order to get around those controls.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    Blaming the hoarding idiocy on Dems or liberals is LAUGHABLE.

    When you get right down to it – there are some wonderful folks in this world – and there are also the other kind who will hoard and gouge – BOTH and they do in even in the best of times.

    No one has “screwed” with supply and demand here. The reality is we have a free-market supply chain and a lot of it is now based on a concept called just-in-time which is the absolute most efficient way to move products.

    But it also means there is no reserve – only what’s in the pipeline.

    Trump was talking about two off-label drugs. Even if they worked, it was pointed out by his own folks that there was not much available right now – just what was in that pipeline. That’s not a “liberal” or Dem problem.

    Geeze Crazy -you’re usually lucid on these things!

    1. Steve Haner Avatar
      Steve Haner

      If there were no laws against gouging, plenty of TP would be available. Simple economics. DJ would part with his supply happily, bartering for booze. I might even walk 100 yards and leave a couple of rolls on Jim’s doorstep. There is a downside to demanding that items stay the same price even when they become so scarce that people are frantic. Just saying….

      1. LarrytheG Avatar

        re: supply/demand

        black market – gouging.. all true…

        payday loans, yep

        airlines that charged more during their busiest times than their slow times… yep

        tickets to big sports games – yep

        but a particular product like TP is all about priorities… 😉

        how about medical equipment? masks, ventilators, etc?


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