You Don’t Need to Hoard Food or Empty Your Bank Account

By Justice Clark Litle

Thucydides, an Athenian general and historian from the fifth century B.C., has words of wisdom that apply well in a time of crisis. Here they are:

“The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what lies before them, glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding, go out to meet it.”

Real courage means knowing the stakes and rising to the occasion. In day-to-day life, there isn’t much call for this. In the midst of a crisis, however, courage is useful to anyone.

Thucydides’ wisdom also highlights the difference between preparation and panic.

  • Preparation means analyzing a situation, constructing a plan, and doing what needs to be done.
  • Panic means giving in to anxiety overload, losing emotional control, and doing something irrational or crazy — like calling the cops because you ran out of toilet paper.

That might sound like a ridiculous example, but it was taken from real life.

“It’s hard to believe that we even have to post this,” the Newport, Oregon, police department wrote on its Facebook page this week. “Do not call 9-1-1 just because you ran out of toilet paper. You will survive without our assistance.”

A bizarre obsession with toilet paper is just one of the strange sidelines of the coronavirus pandemic. Consumers are reportedly obsessed, and not just in the United States. There is a video making the rounds of a supermarket fight in Sydney, Australia, over the last TP rolls in the store.

On a more serious note, Americans have begun to hoard food. Grocery store shelves across the country have been emptied. This is creating a problem for other Americans who haven’t yet stockpiled their pantries.

About a week ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) gave direct guidance to stockpile food. Dr. Nancy Messonier urged high-risk individuals and their families to purchase “enough household items and groceries so that you will be prepared to stay home for a period of time.”

But still, she wasn’t advocating hoarding.

The weird toilet paper obsession, and the food hoarding instinct in general, has touched off a barrage of psychological analyses.

The consensus seems to be that, in the midst of deep anxiety, people are looking for some area of life where they can exert control — and having enough TP to last out the decade is, apparently, a form of control.

If you are actually worried about food shortages — or a run on the banks — you can put those concerns to rest. The coronavirus threat is all too real, as most of us now recognize. But Americans don’t have to worry about banks or grocery stores.

It’s unsettling to hear that shelves have been emptied in grocery stores across the United States. But this is due to simple supply chain realities. Any supply chain will allow for a logical amount of spare capacity, but not a crazy amount, because too much extra capacity would reduce profits.

As such, if Americans normally buy “X” tons of food each month, a grocery supply chain might have the capacity to replenish at 2X, but not some bigger multiple of that rate, like 10X.

Or imagine a gas station that normally sells 28,000 gallons of gasoline per week.

If a fleet of big trucks rolls up and uses the gas station’s whole supply on Sunday, they will be out of gasoline temporarily — but it doesn’t mean they can’t get more.

In this sense, the grocery stores will be completely fine. Coronavirus is not disrupting their food sources or supply chains. (As an agricultural superpower, America produces wild amounts of food.)

It’s also possible to step up delivery schedules and ensure that food delivery drivers are exempted from quarantines, and so on. The big chains are already figuring out the logistics of this.

The banks will also be OK. While the coronavirus pandemic is a very real crisis, it is not a financial crisis in the traditional sense. There is no “run on the banks” going on, and bank reserves are even easier to replenish than grocery store shelves. The Federal Reserve can offer interest-free liquidity to the tune of trillions at the touch of a button (and, in fact, it has done so).

What this means is that, even if your grocery store shelves are empty right now, they will soon be replenished again. And your checking account is also fine. The banks might be a source of stability in this whole mess. The stock market is crashing because of a dire economic outlook, not a repeat of 2008.

There are plenty of real concerns in the midst of this very real crisis. We need to “flatten the curve” and practice social distancing. We need to prepare for layoffs and business hardships. And we need to watch out for our vulnerable loved ones.

But we shouldn’t have to worry about basic functions that aren’t at risk, like groceries and food.

Remember the wisdom of Thucydides — and try not to stress over toilet paper. If you can keep a cool head, your family and your country need you.