Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Great Run on Toilet Paper

Is it a sign that the apocalypse is upon us? Your guess is as good as mine.

And yet, among the strangest aspects of public behavior in the time of coronavirus is this: Americans have taken to hoarding toilet paper.

Things are so bad that a reporter from the Daily Beast discovered, to his or her chagrin, that Costco, mighty Costco, was out of toilet paper.

While it makes sense to me that masks and hand sanitizer would be in short supply because of the outbreak, I wondered why people would be hoarding toilet paper – a product that is widely produced and doesn’t help protect from a respiratory virus like COVID-19. Toilet paper is becoming so valuable there’s even been at least one armed robbery.

As an economist, I am fascinated by why people hoard products that are not having supply problems. Toilet paper hoarding in particular has a curious history and economy.

One thing we know, our supply of toilet paper is not coming from China. It’s mostly produced by local manufacturers:

The average person in the U.S. uses about 100 rolls of toilet paper each year. If most of it came from China, this could be a huge problem because supply chains from that country have been severely disrupted as a result of COVID-19.

The U.S., however, imports very little toilet paper – less than 10% in 2017. And most of that comes from Canada and Mexico.

The U.S. has been mass producing toilet paper since the late 1800s. And while other industries like shoe manufacturing have fled the country, toilet paper manufacturing has not. Today there are almost 150 U.S. companies making this product.

If it’s any consolation, we are not alone in filling our garages with a decade’s worth of toilet paper. Australians have been doing the same thing:

Australia has also suffered from panic buying of toilet paper despite plentiful domestic supply. A risk expert in the country explained it this way: “Stocking up on toilet paper is … a relatively cheap action, and people like to think that they are ‘doing something’ when they feel at risk.”


This is an example of “zero risk bias,” in which people prefer to try to eliminate one type of possibly superficial risk entirely rather than do something that would reduce their total risk by a greater amount.

Hoarding also makes people feel secure. This is especially relevant when the world is faced with a novel disease over which all of us have little or no control. However, we can control things like having enough toilet paper in case we are quarantined.

It’s also possible we are biologically programmed to hoard. Birds, squirrels and other animals tend to hoard stuff.

So we control things we can control because we can’t control things that we can’t control. Lucky we have risk experts to explain these things to us.

And people are losing confidence in the supply chain. We might run out of pasta and beer, but at least we will have toilet paper. And yet, if we run out of food, wouldn’t that suggest that we perhaps will need less toilet paper? Will the mysteries never cease?

Modern economies run on trust and confidence. COVID-19 is breaking down that trust. People are losing confidence that they will be able to go outside and get what they need when they need it. This leads to hoarding items like toilet paper.

While the government advises preparing for a pandemic by storing a two-week supply of food and water, there’s no need to hoard stuff, particularly products that are unlikely to suffer from a shortage.

You might not trust the government, but you can always trust Costco:

As for my local Costco, I stopped by a few days later, and the toilet paper aisle was fully stocked.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

You expect rational behavior from irrational people?

UbuMaccabee said...

There is very little of the modern that I favor over the ancient. However.

I switched to the superior bidet many years ago. Toilet paper is barbaric, and the practice of putting it into the trash can, as is done throughout much of Latin America is positively cretinous and disgusting and unhygienic. The Japanese have really perfected the device; they are to the bidet what Italians are to pasta. The sophistication of a modern bidet provides great pleasure from a seemingly insignificant device. It makes it hard to leave the house. You feel like an ancient Roman king, but instead of a slave girl (or boy) blowing warm air on your freshly minted bunghole, a clever robot does the job instead.

As Brian Eno famously noted: "Here come the warm jets."

It is time we left the poop stained paper behind us and entered the new age of warm water.

Sam L. said...

A week ago Saturday we went to Costco, and there was NO TP. We asked a stocker, who told us they'd gotten 8 pallets of TP that morning, and it was GONE in one hour.

We went again yesterday, and we got the LAST shopping cart in the store. Again, no TP. Looooooong lines to the checkout counters. Pretty much nuts. I'm presuming the TP makers have added more shifts at their factories.

roadgeek said...

We bought quite a bit of toilet paper several weeks ago. We bought it in the expectation that we'd either cloister or be locked down. Further, even if neither action took place, we didn't want to have to go out to buy supplies.

dogsledder said...

What has toilet paper to do with the Corona virus ? Uh...NOTHING !
I think that this is evidence of government schools dumbing down kids for two generations...time to reverse the trend and start actually educating children again. Socialist teachers of the world- Drop dead !

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

There is something very strange about all this. The numbers don’t add up. This is not China, and Italy is not a comparison country in terms of demographics, healthcare, etc. all the coverage is full of cherry-picking data points.

This Dr. Fauci is not helping things, nor are the CDC recommendations that people need 2 weeks of provisions, toilet pater and hand sanitizer. Agencies are creating a panic, while journalists are lamenting the lack of a White House Office of Pandemics. Bureaucrats soaking up their moments of fame for all they’re worth.

All this is ruining the economy. For what?

We’re being whipped-up up into a frenzy by the media. Look at Drudge Report — even that page is pure doom and gloom clickbait.

And I am all for bidets, as Ubu points out. Wonderful!

Anonymous said...

I've read somewhere that although the paper itself is produced in the US, the cardboard cores for the rolls are in fact made in China. A shortage of those would lead to the shortage of toilet paper.