KIRIL SOKOLOFF: Well, coming back to David Hume’s famous paper, and you’ve referred to me a number of times. His conclusion was that governments should essentially run surpluses because there’s always a crisis or problematic. If you look at corporations coming into this with the worst balance sheets in history, with profits having been flat since 2012, 40% of Americans barely able to get $500 in an emergency, it seems to me that as we come out of this, one of the implications is going to be we need to be better prepared for the future. Do you think that that’s the way we’re going to go, that we will be, look, we got a real wakeup call here, we need to have money for a rainy day?
LACY HUNT: I think that’s the case for the private sector, but I don’t feel that that’s the case for the government sector. Remember, net national saving has the private sector and the private sector saving was fine. 8.50%, not bad. The problem was that we had a 6.50% government dissaving and so we only ended up with two. The real problem is that you have to have a net saving from the private, the government, the net foreign sector, and if the government, even though maybe well-intended, maybe the actions are very popular.
All of these measures that were taken to deal with the pandemic, they were very popular. The measures– and they were essential. They were humane, they had to be done. It would have been far better if we’ve been following Hume’s advice, which is you run surpluses so when you have an emergency, you have– and by the way, Adam Smith in the Wealth of Nations followed Hume, made the same recommendation. Of course, no one remembers that anymore. No one reads Hume and Smith.
KIRIL SOKOLOFF: To get to a positive net national savings, presumably that’s– I’m not saying it’s a governmental objective, but it should be a national objective in some form based on your point that in order to have money to invest, you’ve got to be able to save out of income. If government is going to keep on running deficits, at pick the number, 15 plus percent GDP, in order to have a positive net savings rate, that implies very significant private savings rate.
LACY HUNT: Unachievable, and let’s say that we bring back a lot of our operations, in other words. If that happens, then the current account deficit will start to shrink, but the current account deficit is always the opposite of the capital account. When you have a current account deficit, you have a capital account surplus, but the capital account surplus is net foreign saving. This is one of the problems. If you repatriate businesses, and you shrink the current account deficit, then you’re going to shrink net foreign saving. It’s quite possible that we will have two of saving movements. One for the increased level of government dissaving and also less positive foreign saving. We import a lot of saving from the rest of the world.
KIRIL SOKOLOFF: Given the output cap, not having the savings to invest, is that better than it might otherwise have been? Because we got five, six, seven years to fill that output gap, or is the transformative event that is the easiest way out, if that’s the right word. Is that dependent on having the capital and savings to invest? Does that mean that in order to have that transformative, new economy, we’re going to have to have a net national savings? Am I taking that–
LACY HUNT: The thing about those transformative events is that they often create a surge in income, and thus in saving that they finance themselves, but that’s why I use the term transformative. It cannot be evolutionary. Let’s think about the situation that we were in the late 1920s, early 1930s. We take on a great deal of debt in the ’20s and ’30s. We struggle throughout the 1930s. When Germany invades Poland, we still have an unemployment rate of 17% or 18%. We’ve come off the peak levels, but we still have a very high unemployment rate and we have a substantial number of people underemployed.
In other words, we really made very little progress to turning the economy. We stabilized things, and we ended the worst aspects of the Great Depression. Then World War II comes along. A lot of folks including the great JM Keynes believe that it was the deficit spending of World War II that shored the problems of the Great Depression. That’s not my reading. It is true that on a national income accounts basis, we ran deficits of 14%, 15% which is what we’re now running again by my calculation, national product account basis.
However, we had two other events that occurred simultaneously. Number one,
- we had a surge in our exports, and
- we had mandatory rationing.
If you wanted to buy 10 pounds of sugar, you couldn’t. You could buy one maybe, you had a ration, and so people were paid to produce exports and to produce military goods. The private saving rate went up to 25% of net national income. We were able to cover the federal budget dissaving and we paid off the debts of the 1920s and 1930s. When World War II ended, Keynes suggested if we didn’t continue running the budget deficits of World War II, we would go back into the Great Depression, but that didn’t happen.
The budget was basically balanced all the way through and to the early 1960s. We ran small deficits, but we ran small surpluses on balance. It was close to balance. We opened up our export market, we opened up markets to the US, we financed the reconstruction in Europe and Japan, we had a tremendous resurgence. If you look at McKinsey’s 24 cases of overindebted economies and how they got out of it by austerity, one of their cases is the US during World War II. They labeled it a fortuitous circumstance. We didn’t go into World War II to get rid of the debt problem of the 1920s and ’30s.
It was something that happened as a result of the policy mixes but the folks in America were okay with the austerity because it was a great national endeavor. I don’t think that they would be willing to do that today. Everyone is relying on more government activity to solve the problem, not realizing that that’s the source of our deteriorating rate of economic performance.
KIRIL SOKOLOFF: Well, on that note, it’s been a really instructive ending [?].
On March 1, the day after the first coronavirus death in the United States was announced, brothers Matt and Noah Colvin set out in a silver S.U.V. to pick up some hand sanitizer. Driving around Chattanooga, Tenn., they hit a Dollar Tree, then a Walmart, a Staples and a Home Depot. At each store, they cleaned out the shelves.
Over the next three days, Noah Colvin took a 1,300-mile road trip across Tennessee and into Kentucky, filling a U-Haul truck with thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and thousands of packs of antibacterial wipes, mostly from “little hole-in-the-wall dollar stores in the backwoods,” his brother said. “The major metro areas were cleaned out.”
Matt Colvin stayed home near Chattanooga, preparing for pallets of even more wipes and sanitizer he had ordered, and starting to list them on Amazon. Mr. Colvin said he had posted 300 bottles of hand sanitizer and immediately sold them all for between $8 and $70 each, multiples higher than what he had bought them for. To him, “it was crazy money.” To many others, it was profiteering from a pandemic.
Now, while millions of people across the country search in vain for hand sanitizer to protect themselves from the spread of the coronavirus, Mr. Colvin is sitting on 17,700 bottles of the stuff with little idea where to sell them.
“It’s been a huge amount of whiplash,” he said. “From being in a situation where what I’ve got coming and going could potentially put my family in a really good place financially to ‘What the heck am I going to do with all of this?’”
Mr. Colvin is one of probably thousands of sellers who have amassed stockpiles of hand sanitizer and crucial respirator masks that many hospitals are now rationing, according to interviews with eight Amazon sellers and posts in private Facebook and Telegram groups from dozens more. Amazon said it had recently removed hundreds of thousands of listings and suspended thousands of sellers’ accounts for price gouging related to the coronavirus.
Amazon, eBay, Walmart and other online-commerce platforms are trying to stop their sellers from making excessive profits from a public health crisis. While the companies aimed to discourage people from hoarding such products and jacking up their prices, many sellers had already cleared out their local stores and started selling the goods online.
Now both the physical and digital shelves are nearly empty.
Mikeala Kozlowski, a nurse in Dudley, Mass., has been searching for hand sanitizer since before she gave birth to her first child, Nora, on March 5. When she searched stores, which were sold out, she skipped getting gas to avoid handling the pump. And when she checked Amazon, she couldn’t find it for less than $50.
“You’re being selfish, hoarding resources for your own personal gain,” she said of the sellers.
Sites like Amazon and eBay have given rise to a growing industry of independent sellers who snatch up discounted or hard-to-find items in stores to post online and sell around the world.
These sellers call it retail arbitrage, a 21st-century career that has adults buying up everything from limited-run cereals to Fingerling Monkeys, a once hot toy. The bargain hunters look for anything they can sell at a sharp markup. In recent weeks, they found perhaps their biggest opportunity: a pandemic.
As they watched the list of Amazon’s most popular searches crowd with terms like “Purell,” “N95 mask” and “Clorox wipes,” sellers said, they did what they had learned to do: Suck up supply and sell it for what the market would bear.
Initially, the strategy worked. For several weeks, prices soared for some of the top results to searches for sanitizer, masks and wipes on Amazon, according to a New York Times analysis of historical prices from Jungle Scout, which tracks data for Amazon sellers. The data shows that both Amazon and third-party sellers like Mr. Colvin increased their prices, which then mostly dropped when Amazon took action against price gouging this month.
At the high prices, people still bought the products en masse, and Amazon took a cut of roughly 15 percent and eBay roughly 10 percent, depending on the price and the seller.
Then the companies, pressured by growing criticism from regulators and customers, cracked down. After the measures last week, Amazon went further on Wednesday, restricting sales of any coronavirus-related products from certain sellers.
“Price gouging is a clear violation of our policies, unethical, and in some areas, illegal,” Amazon said in a statement. “In addition to terminating these third party accounts, we welcome the opportunity to work directly with states attorneys general to prosecute bad actors.”
Mr. Colvin, 36, a former Air Force technical sergeant, said he started selling on Amazon in 2015, developing it into a six-figure career by selling Nike shoes and pet toys, and by following trends.
In early February, as headlines announced the coronavirus’s spread in China, Mr. Colvin spotted a chance to capitalize. A nearby liquidation firm was selling 2,000 “pandemic packs,” leftovers from a defunct company. Each came with 50 face masks, four small bottles of hand sanitizer and a thermometer. The price was $5 a pack. Mr. Colvin haggled it to $3.50 and bought them all.
He quickly sold all 2,000 of the 50-packs of masks on eBay, pricing them from $40 to $50 each, and sometimes higher. He declined to disclose his profit on the record but said it was substantial.
The success stoked his appetite. When he saw the panicked public starting to pounce on sanitizer and wipes, he and his brother set out to stock up.
Elsewhere in the country, other Amazon sellers were doing the same.
Chris Anderson, an Amazon seller in central Pennsylvania, said he and a friend had driven around Ohio, buying about 10,000 masks from stores. He used coupons to buy packs of 10 for around $15 each and resold them for $40 to $50. After Amazon’s cut and other costs, he estimates, he made a $25,000 profit.
Mr. Anderson is now holding 500 packs of antibacterial wipes after Amazon blocked him from selling them for $19 each, up from $16 weeks earlier. He bought the packs for $3 each.
Eric, a truck driver from Ohio who spoke on the condition that his surname not be published because he feared Amazon would retaliate, said he had also collected about 10,000 masks at stores. He bought each 10-pack for about $20 and sold most for roughly $80 each, though some he priced at $125.
“Even at $125 a box, they were selling almost instantly,” he said. “It was mind-blowing as far as what you could charge.” He estimates he made $35,000 to $40,000 in profit.
Now he has 1,000 more masks on order, but he’s not sure what to do with them. He said Amazon had been vague about what constituted price gouging, scaring away sellers who don’t want to risk losing their ability to sell on its site.
To regulators and many others, the sellers are sitting on a stockpile of medical supplies during a pandemic. The attorney general’s offices in California, Washington and New York are all investigating price gouging related to the coronavirus. California’s price-gouging law bars sellers from increasing prices by more than 10 percent after officials declare an emergency. New York’s law prohibits sellers from charging an “unconscionably excessive price” during emergencies.
An official at the Washington attorney general’s office said the agency believed it could apply the state’s consumer-protection law to sue platforms or sellers, even if they aren’t in Washington, as long as they were trying to sell to Washington residents.
Mr. Colvin does not believe he was price gouging. While he charged $20 on Amazon for two bottles of Purell that retail for $1 each, he said people forget that his price includes his labor, Amazon’s fees and about $10 in shipping. (Alcohol-based sanitizer is pricey to ship because officials consider it a hazardous material.)
Current price-gouging laws “are not built for today’s day and age,” Mr. Colvin said. “They’re built for Billy Bob’s gas station doubling the amount he charges for gas during a hurricane.”
He added, “Just because it cost me $2 in the store doesn’t mean it’s not going to cost me $16 to get it to your door.”
But what about the morality of hoarding products that can prevent the spread of the virus, just to turn a profit?
Mr. Colvin said he was simply fixing “inefficiencies in the marketplace.” Some areas of the country need these products more than others, and he’s helping send the supply toward the demand.
“There’s a crushing overwhelming demand in certain cities right now,” he said. “The Dollar General in the middle of nowhere outside of Lexington, Ky., doesn’t have that.”
He thought about it more. “I honestly feel like it’s a public service,” he added. “I’m being paid for my public service.”
As for his stockpile, Mr. Colvin said he would now probably try to sell it locally. “If I can make a slight profit, that’s fine,” he said. “But I’m not looking to be in a situation where I make the front page of the news for being that guy who hoarded 20,000 bottles of sanitizer that I’m selling for 20 times what they cost me.”
After The Times published this article on Saturday morning, Mr. Colvin said he was exploring ways to donate all the supplies.
How History Ends Up Repeating Itself
Fascism is a way to ration a stagnant economy to in-groups. If you understand just one sentence about fascism, let it be that one — because it’s the key. Like everything in life, our love, our fear, our desire, so too, our hate serves a purpose. Fascism exists for a reason: to ration the dwindling fruits of a stagnant economy. Think about it this way: if the harvest suddenly fails, then the crop must be rationed somehow — a way must be found to take from some, and give to others, because markets and prices and so on will begin to leave people hungry. What is that way? Who will get it, and how much?
Well, that way is usually this: blaming a scapegoat for the stagnant economy, for the failed harvest, whether it’s Jews in the 1930s, Muslims and Jews and immgrants today, or virgins and witches in the dark ages. And then therefore excluding those scapegoats from the economy altogether, just as laws were passed to first expropriate, take the possessions of, Jews, and then to push them into ghettoes, then into labour camps, and then, finally, terribly, into
.. Of course, the problem then is that even those chosen few must either dwindle, along with the failed crop, in a vicious circle — or the fascist must declare war, and find someone else’s crop to seize, which is what Germany did. Either way, the point remains.
.. Fascism rations stagnation. It’s so vital I’ll say it again. We have never, ever once seen fascism arising during good times in all of human history because fascism is a way to take from some and give to others — a bad, inhuman, and foolish way to solve a problem: the problem of stagnation, when the harvest begins to fail. But it is a way to solve a problem nonetheless, and until we understand that, we have understood precisely nothing about it at all.
.. The fascist’s hate in this way serves a purpose: it is a social mechanism of rationing in order to solve the problem of stagnation.
.. Myth: our existing institutions will save us from fascism.
Reality: fascism can only arises when those institutions have already failed
.. So the rise of fascism tells us in the strongest terms possible that institutions don’t work anymore—fascism rising is their ultimate failure. That is what we see in America today: an institutional vacuum. Nothing works anymore, does it? Not the law, the media, politics, capitalism, democracy. That is precisely what gave fascism the room, space, fuel, freedom to arise.