The economics of a worldwide pandemic

Everything from beer to ink is running low, but so is the most significant item: kindness

By George Valadie

I loved teaching high school economics. It was without question my favorite above all the others. And I’ve taught a few others along the way.

World history, sociology, biology, English, basic computer programming, religion, and even an elective titled Deviant Behavior.

Why so many? Every high school principal shares the same summertime dream. Design a master schedule with every student taking every subject they want with every instructor having background in the field.

Yet it’s a curricular puzzle solved when—and only when—the stars and your staff align perfectly.

So what do you do when such perfection eludes you? You turn to an imperfect solution. And that was me.

On the one hand, I was happy to accept the compliment and the confidence shown in me when my principal would ask, “George, everyone else’s schedule is full, and we don’t have anyone left who knows anything about this . . . will you teach it?”

On the other hand, his occasional requests brought a semester of fear and anxiety. Mine. Causing me to turn to whatever help could be found from textbooks, colleagues, and prayer, lots of prayer. After all, who wants to sound stupid in front of a bunch of teenagers?!

None of our teachers were econ majors when I was first handed that assignment in the late ’70s because the state had just added that subject to its list of graduation requirements.

He noticed Intro to Econ on my transcript and named me the winner. But I’m really glad he did; it’s been my favorite ever since.

I mention it here because current circumstances in our country have flooded my memories with all that time we spent learning the laws of supply and demand and how they interact with each other in our market economy.

There’s always “give and take” and “back and forth,” but over time consumers and producers generally reach an unspoken balance known as the “point of equilibrium.”

That’s the market’s happy spot, where the amount we’re willing to pay and the quantities we’re willing to buy parallel how much suppliers are willing to stock and sell at that price.

It’s not a flawless process—there are winners and losers, but our economy was kinda rocking along. Until…

Changes on either side can upset that balance—new inventions, improved production, buyer education, cultural fads, shifting trends. And when the scales tip one way or the other, the market yields either a surplus or a shortage.

So what’s the economic impact of a worldwide pandemic? You don’t have to be an econ major to know the answer to that.

Technically, both the levels of supply and demand have shifted below the point of equilibrium. Non-technically, it sounds like, “I’m sorry, sir, we’re out of that.”

We understood it when stores ran out of wipes and paper towels. Nancy was hardly the only one wiping down our groceries before I could bring them in the house. (Though the toilet-paper thing remains a mystery.)

When the world ran out of boats and bikes and baking ingredients, that made sense, too, what with so many folks looking for things to fill up their newly found free time.

But the list of hard-to-find items continues to grow ever longer. And ever stranger.

You’ve read about the shortage of lumber, but a contractor friend says there are no windows to be found either.

My son-in-law says certain brands of beer are hard to find. Apparently, in normal times, it’s restaurants that sell the bulk of the beer, and it’s delivered to them in kegs. However, people sitting at home (and there’s been no shortage of those lately) buy theirs in bottles and cans. Apparently making the beer isn’t the problem, it’s finding enough glass, aluminum, and even ink for their labels.

Who’s ever heard of an ink shortage?!

New cars are dwindling in number because they can’t function without the microchips in short supply. Schools and parents have made it worse by buying up every laptop for at-home work and learning.

Houses and cars are a big deal, but thankfully not all of the shortages are crippling us. My daughter can’t find Capri Sun juice pouches for her kids’ lunches. Ketchup packets are apparently in short supply, too. They’ll live, but it’s getting testy over there.

Every restaurant and fast-food joint is looking for workers. The debate about where they’ve gone has gotten political and ugly. But whatever the reason, my Waffle House down the street now closes at 2 p.m. And that’s just unacceptable.

Admittedly, Nancy and I drink way too much Diet Coke, but it’s a world gone mad when our favorite convenience store can’t get long straws or plastic lids.

And two weeks ago, in what might be the strangest shortage I’ve personally encountered, the waitress announced, “You’re lucky, you got the last order of onion rings. We’re out of them after you get yours. And we won’t have any more until October.”

Onion rings? October? What in the world is going on?

In a worldwide market with buyers and sellers spanning the globe, it’s easy to understand why a single individual will never move the needle.

But here’s the thing. We—all of us—one by one and one at a time, we absolutely do have the ability to impact what might be the most significant shortage of all: kindness.

It can’t be bought up; it can’t be used up; it can’t get held up by a crimp in the supply chain. No, God gave each of us, all 7 billion of us, an unlimited supply. So where’d it go?

Employees who are working shorthanded, who are bound to enforce rules they didn’t create, who have to tell customers “sorry, we’re out”—those folks are taking a beating. We know it, we hear about it, we watch it, we may even be guilty of it. In person, on the phone, via text and e-mail, they’re getting hammered with cruelty.

In our defense though, we’re frustrated. We’re continually exasperated by a growing number of businesses who promise but don’t deliver, who miss deadlines, who offer lousy service and pitiful excuses. On a good day, we’re discouraged; we’re infuriated on our worst.

I mean somebody’s gotta hear about this, don’t they?

Or do they?

Dear God—Keep us ever mindful that you forgive us—over and over and over and …  Amen.

 

George Valadie resides in Chattanooga and is a parishioner at St. Stephen Church.

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