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The Social Costs of Scarcity

What happens to a nation's culture when its citizens can no longer count on basic necessities?

Since the beginning of the shelter-in-place regime, Americans have been forced to deal with shortages of necessities. From the very start the absence of products on the shelves went beyond toilet paper, the item that immediately became known for its disappearance. The situation has rapidly deteriorated in the last weeks with supply chain disruptions failing to fill quickly emptying store shelves.

Biden administration Press Secretary Jen Psaki made light of irregularities, calling it, “The tragedy of the treadmill that’s delayed.” Washington Post columnist Micheline Maynard jeered, “Time for some new, more realistic expectations,” calling for ordinary people to adjust to an emerging new normal. “American consumers, their expectations pampered and catered to for decades, are not accustomed to inconvenience.”

If anyone comes across as “pampered,” it’s Maynard herself, who doesn’t seem to understand that the prolonged shortages for which she’s apparently advocating are unlikely to build up the character of the American consumer. Empty stores and long lines are poised to destroy the already fraying social fabric of our society.

I know because I grew up in the USSR, where lines were a feature of everyday life. Such was the economy engineered by Joseph Stalin. In the early 1930’s, the Communist strongman centralized agriculture on the bones of millions of peasants who starved to death during collectivization. To stay alive, some farmers fled to the cities, while the ones who remained were turned into serfs working government estates. They had little incentive to produce anything at all, and the empty store shelves were a testament to that.

Chronic shortages were a contributing factor that made Russia a low trust society. If in the Western imagination the marketplace is the location where strangers come together to exchange goods and ideas, the Soviet shopping experience bred hostility and mistrust.

The malice of Stalinist central planning was not limited to collectivization. Stalin assumed power by putting his loyalists in local positions and rewarding them directly with various perks, like summer vacations in Crimea, and private apartments in coveted neighborhoods. Naturally, such nomenklatura had their own stores where merchandise was far better and more plentiful.

Centralization of production and distribution led to a homogeneity. There was little variation in foods sold at stores across the country. Aside from the fact that collectivization made keeping certain religious and cultural traditions impossible—try keeping kosher when the only protein available is pork kolbasa—the products with which the Soviets did best were usually canned goods, not exactly the most nutritious kind. Farmer’s markets, where at better times a limited amount of private enterprise was allowed, had far better selection and greater variety, but they weren’t open every day.

My family took care to shelter me from the line culture, something that was only possible because I was lucky to have living grandparents. I went to school every morning, and they, given that they were both retired, went to work. They took trams in opposite directions in order to hit multiple stores and the farmer’s market.

A foreigner might look at a breadline and see it merely as a waste of time, or maybe as one giant exercise in tolerating discomforts—imagine spending several hours out on the street, in the cold, trying to feel your toes inside the leaky Soviet boots. A line, however, represents a qualitatively more significant dysfunction; it’s a sign of shortage. People wait in lines because they covet the commodity more than the time and psychological well-being that goes into obtaining it. In the Soviet case, with the living memory of the Holodomor, and personal experience of shortages, the failure to obtain food today may have meant starvation tomorrow.

There is a lot that people will do to provide for their loved ones. See that mystery green sausage, the last one left? Somebody will get it, it could be you, or it could be some dubious-looking stranger. Just look at his sour face in an ear hat, and a grey jacket. Looks just like everyone else.

My grandparents brought back the stories from the grocery front lines. Being called yid mugs, for instance, what else is new? One popularly accepted explanation of Soviet antisemitism was that ordinary people are hungry, hostile, and need a scapegoat.

Obnoxious babushkas always rushed towards the counter, pushing your well-mannered intellectual types out of the way. The well-mannered types were only trying to keep their humanity, rare birds unwilling to stoop so low as to attack fellow human beings. My grandparents bemoaned those gentle people’s fate—and their own.

Presiding over the food line mayhem was the all-Soviet sales lady. Being an insider in a store that sold precious items, she got the first peek at the groceries, taking what she needed for herself, and her friends and family. At the counter she was her own security detail, barking orders at riotous shoppers, or, quite often, barking orders and obscenities just because she could. The idea of customer service simply didn’t exist.

Scarce goods were hoarded and passed down exclusive trade networks called blat. Personal connections, quite literally a lifeline, were diligently guarded. Soviet people made friends early in life and kept them until the grave. But strangers were viewed with suspicion. Heart-to-heart conversations, along with the exchange of scarce goods, took place in the kitchens, in hushed tones; public discourse didn’t exist.

In part this was, of course, due to the very real fear that sharing a political joke with the wrong person could cost one all sorts of unpleasantness, including, under Stalin, a tour of the Gulags. But any stranger represented competition for scarce resources, too. This was not the kind of society where people spontaneously came together to address mutual problems, or where charity organizations proliferated.

The Washington Post’s insistence that Americans need to learn to live with chronic shortages as the Biden administration aims to pass trillion-dollar spending bills designed to restructure our economy is not very different from standard Democratic Socialist talking points. Returning from his Potemkin honeymoon in the USSR, Bernie Sanders reported: “People there seem reasonably happy and content. I didn’t notice much deprivation.” If Soviet people could do it, so can you, in the name of everything that is good and just and healthy. On another occasion Bernie had articulated the core pro-Soviet position that lines are a good thing: “In other countries, people don’t line up for food, rich people get the food and poor people starve to death.”

Of course, contrary to the senator’s assertion, people don’t “starve to death” in the absence of five year plans. Markets deliver more and better goods. At the risk of sounding too much like Yakov Smirnov, I feel an outpouring of gratitude every time I walk into an American supermarket. I’m just an average citizen, an immigrant even, which in any other country would put me at the bottom of the social ladder, but when I needed preserved lemons for a Moroccan chicken recipe, my neighborhood grocery store had it. I had no idea what preserved lemon was, and, in fact, I’m still not sure about its use beyond that particular dish, but my grocer did, and he made it available.

Most importantly, mercantile abundance creates a society where people are kind and law-abiding. California all but legalized shoplifting under $950, but most supermarkets are still operating with open shelves (some stores in San Francisco are closing due to shoplifting, to be sure). In the USSR, no counter could be left unattended. Here it’s normal for a shopper to encounter a little old lady asking to help her get a box from the top shelf—a request dutifully indulged, with a smile. Even as divisiveness, anger, and isolation are becoming increasingly common in the last decade or so, Americans still congregate in physical spaces of supermarkets, and we see each other as human beings first.

The damage done by ongoing supply chain disruptions can easily go beyond temporary inconvenience—all the Biden administration is trying to convince everyone it will amount to. If left lingering, shortages will irreversibly damage American civil society, the very fabric of our democratic republic.

Katya Sedgwick is a writer in the San Francisco Bay area. You can follow her on Twitter @KatyaSedgwick.