I have a six week or so supply of toilet paper.
Those are 11 words I never thought I would ever type or utter.
Unless you are living on a remote ranch in Modoc County with no Internet or TV access you are well aware there is toilet paper, facial tissue, as well as paper towel hoarding going on. This past weekend poking around Valley stores it is clear that you can add paper napkins to the list of things that are harder to find than an eight-track stereo player at Best Buy.
What makes this all bizarre is how most of us probably bought toilet paper before the word “coronavirus” because a bigger part of the vernacular than “dude.” There are two people in my household. Typically, once every six weeks I purchase a Kirkland toilet paper pack at Costco that I split with a friend that is in a solo household.
I have a tendency to buy staples that aren’t perishable so I always have at least a four to six-week supply. I have 20 packets of veggie burgers with four patties apiece in the freezer meaning I have a 40-day supply.
I have enough almonds on hand to go another four months — that is no small deal given I go through the equivalent of 1½ cans a week.
I consider myself fortunate. I am able to buy in bulk when things are on sale. I know a lot of people who can’t. That is why the odds are overwhelming that the households that started the run on toilet paper are those that already had a somewhat decent stash.
Two weeks ago, when I came across toilet paper in Food-4-Less I bought a 12-pack just in case. I resisted buying a second as I was pretty sure this “run” would be receding within a month.
Now I’m not so sure. While I’m not on the hunt for toilet paper — which apparently will be a bigger search item than dyed Easter eggs in April— if I see TP for sale in a store, I will probably buy at least a 6-pack or a pack of whatever is available.
That’s because I remember the ludicrous run on toilet paper in 1973 that was the outgrowth of the Arab oil embargo.
In what may sound comical today, the oil embargo raised the benchmark price for a barrel of oil from $3 to almost $12 a barrel. Just a couple of months ago it was at $55 a barrel with the historical peak reaching $147.22 a barrel in 2008 until the mortgage meltdown, combined with improved fracking and other economic events, punched a big hole in the barrel price.
People in 1973 were lining up for blocks to get gasoline that — try not to laugh — had topped 90 cents a gallon. The government stepped in and went to “rationing gas” by limiting the days that people with license plates ending in odd numbers could purchase fuel and those with even numbers could purchase fuel.
The idea was to reduce the lines and reduce panic buying. What ended up happening was for months people would buy gas every day the last digit in their license plate would allow it. What ended the madness was not simply the oil embargo being lifted, but enough gasoline flowing to pumps to discourage panic buying.
There were reports circulating that the gasoline “shortage” was putting other commodities in short supply as well, such as onions.
So how before the days of social media did toilet paper — that wasn’t in short supply in 1973 — become a scarce commodity almost overnight?
Credit it starting with one Congressman — Harold Froelich — whose Wisconsin district included paper pulp mills that were experiencing a slowdown in demand.
Froelich happened to find a document from the National Buying Center that the federal government had fallen far short of its effort to get competitive bids to provide toilet paper for the general government and the military.
That prompted the congressman to issue a press release reading, “The U.S. may face a serious shortage of toilet paper within a few months . . . We hope we don’t have to ration toilet paper . . . a toilet paper shortage is no laughing matter. It is a problem that will potentially touch every American.”
Wire services and radio hosts picked up Froelich’s release without questioning it. They managed to leave out qualifiers such as “may” and “potential” from stories.
Still there was not a run on toilet paper until Johnny Carson during a monologue on the “Late Night TV Show” made a joke about the “toilet paper shortage” as reported by newspapers and radio stations.
That joke was heard by 20 million viewers. The next day the hoarding began and wouldn’t slowdown for weeks.
You can, by the way, use 1973 to bring a bit of perspective to the stock drop as well. While coverage is focusing on points dropped, the percentage of value loss is nowhere near the 45 percent the markets lost in overall value in 1973. Of course this time around the big difference is a massive chunk of the economy is being put in deep freeze due to the best weapon to make the pandemic manageable and less deadly, which is to stay at home orders, that have led to government directives in California and a growing number of other states to the mandated shutting down of non-essential businesses which in turn is putting tens of millions of people out of work.
How long the toilet paper — or more appropriately the personal paper products used for hygiene and cleaning — hoarding will go on is anybody’s guess.
It doesn’t matter that industry assurances that there is plenty of production capacity will help much given the attention the pandemic has garnered is virtually universal, the stay at home orders real, and the likelihood people who have five to six week supply of toilet paper aren’t likely to wait until they are down to one pack anytime soon to resist buying more toilet paper they might see on a store shelf.
We are learning with each passing day about how Newton’s Third Law of Physics — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — might often be applied to human behavior.
Ponder that while you daydream about the good old days of Mr. Whipple admonishing you not to squeeze the Charmin on aisle six at your neighborhood grocery store.