January 18, 2022

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Can’t find toilet paper? UC Davis professors break down ‘rational’ coronavirus hoarding

Haunting scenes of empty shelves at department stores surround us in this new post-coronavirus world.

Viral videos of families fighting over rolls of toilet paper and the sudden commodification of hand sanitizer are a constant reminder of the resource-hoarding mentality that has infected many, not just in California, but across the country.

Experts at the University of California agree on one thing — hoarding is wrong.

But that’s where the buck stops because, as UC Davis management professor Don Palmer said, hoarding might actually be a completely rational response to an unprecedented and chaotic crisis.

“Commentators often portray people as irrational when they rush to the store and buy everything in sight, calling it ‘panic buying,’ ” Palmer said. “But in this case, most people were likely acting rationally.”

Palmer said that as the pandemic was slowly becoming a central concern globally, messaging from public officials and health experts urged precautions such as having a 30-stock of everyday necessities.

“So people went out right after the pronouncements and purchased abnormally large quantities of the things they usually purchase,” Palmer said.

The ensuing spike in prices of everyday essentials then prompted low-income communities to stock up en masse as well, hoping to avoid the worst of it.

“Those who live paycheck to paycheck — and there are many in our society — likely were particularly quick to shop, because they could least-afford the rising prices,” Palmer said. “I think the hoarding and the panic buying is a product of a number of things, one of which is the fact that when you are not getting a message which you can trust about the situation, you are left to figure things out on your own. One way to figure things out on your own is to say, ‘I’m going to imagine the worst.’ ”

President Donald Trump recently signed an executive order in an attempt to crack down on hoarding of some common medical supplies such as N95 respirator masks and ventilators.

The action takes aim at price-gougers who have stockpiled supplies and sold them at above-market prices during the crisis.

The New York Times reported earlier this month on two Tennessee men who bought 17,700 bottles of hand sanitizer and sold some for exorbitant amounts — for which he was lambasted and eventually forced to donate the sanitizer to charity.

However, UC Davis professor Gabriel Chin said, most hoarders are likely exempted from any possible legal repercussions.

He noted Trump’s executive order reflects concerns over personal protective equipment and grants them the special status of ‘scarce materials,’ a status that does not extend to most household goods.

That includes toilet paper and food, Chin said, which means there likely won’t be any action taken against your run-of-the-mill grocery store hoarder.

Additionally, current California law forbids price gouging during a national, state or local emergency — which applies to the coronavirus pandemic — but primarily prevents businesses, not individuals, from selling products at unreasonably high rates.

“Overall, it is fair to say that these laws are controversial and hard to enforce, but they appear to be constitutional. They are controversial because there is a general principle in this country that you are allowed to speculate,” and sell products at a profit, Chin said. “On the other hand, not everything is a matter of money.”

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