American scarcity and political impotence

Heather Long writes that we’re living in an age of scarcity and that, although we don’t like it, there’s little we can do about it:

Why are Americans so gloomy about the economy? Jobs are plentiful and unemployment is back at pre-pandemic lows, yet sentiment is in the dumps. The obvious answer is that inflation is at a 40-year high and that wages largely aren’t keeping up. But there’s a deeper force at work that is fundamental to why Americans are so upset: scarcity.

Availability of products, or lack thereof, is as critical an issue as rising prices. The last time Americans experienced this phenomenon was in the 1970s, with long lines at gas stations. Today, more than two years into the pandemic, generations of Americans at a variety of income levels are encountering shortages across a much wider array of products. It is, in many ways, a new age of scarcity. …

Many families feel that they still can’t get ahead, even if they saved diligently during pandemic lockdowns and landed higher-paying jobs or raises. Part of the reason is they want to buy things — homes, cars, dishwashers — but often can’t, even for a sky-high price. Car inventories are at unprecedented lows, so people are paying more than the sticker price, yet the color or model they want isn’t always available. Similarly, grocery stores and restaurants are struggling to keep items in stock. Before the pandemic, the share of items unavailable on store shelves was typically about 5 percent. Most customers barely noticed. Lately, it’s been closer to 12 to 15 percent, sometimes worse. …

Americans aren’t used to this kind of scarcity, and it compounds the frustration that politicians spent much of the past year saying supply chains would be fixed “soon.” Instead, the problems keep coming: as varied as baby formula shortages, Russia’s war in Ukraine triggering a food supply crisis, and China’s covid-19 lockdown shuttering factories and delaying shipments. It’s now taking manufacturers an unprecedented 100 days, on average, to get materials — the longest delay on record since the industry started keeping track in the late 1980s.

Obvious political responses to the roiling crises that Americans have felt themselves undergoing—arguably more or less since President Donald Trump’s election and throughout President Biden’s reactive presidency—is for the White House and Congress to prioritize American manufacturing, continue to impose tariffs on companies and industries that pursue outsourcing, and incentivize regions and localities to develop generational plans for the insourcing of critical industries and products.