HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
November 27, 2006, Herald Journal

Scarcity brings out the worst


Hundreds of people recently spent days waiting in line in front of retail establishments.

The thing that motivated them to brave the cold and rain was not the need to put food on their tables, or the acquisition of some vital medicine to protect their families.

It was a game.

The release of Sony’s PlayStation 3 game console has drawn crowds in several countries where the product has been introduced.

The demand for the new system reportedly far exceeded the number of units that were available for the launch, and that is where the trouble started.

There were scattered reports of violence and problems in cities across the US and Canada.

Police had to disperse unruly crowds in some cities more than a day and a half before the official launch.

Perhaps this should not be too surprising.

One wonders what sort of people have enough free time to camp out in front of a store for three days.

Several shoppers expressed concern that they might lose their jobs as a result of their actions.

Others stated that they were using company sick time to wait in line.

Apart from the hard-core video game enthusiasts, there was another element in these crowds.

Some estimates suggest that a high percentage of those in line had no intention of even opening the packages.

These people are profiteers who hoped to cash in by turning around and selling the consoles on eBay or Craigslist, or selling them on their own to the highest bidder.

The retail price of the units ranges from approximately $500 for models with a 20GB hard drive, to about $600 for those with a 60GB hard drive.

Some estimates say that units sold at auction could bring from $1,000 to $3,000.

Some might defend this practice, and say that if people are stupid enough to waste three days sitting in front of a store, they should be compensated for their time.

Perhaps this is true.

They are exploiting the foolishness of others, but nobody really needs one of these units (no matter what they might say), and if people are so idiotic as to pay several times the retail price for an item, rather than waiting a few months for supply to catch up with demand, perhaps that is their business.

But what if we extend the concept a bit further?

There have been times in this country’s history where some very basic items have been in short supply.

During the war years, many commodities were rationed.

Most people did their part to conserve, and used their government-issued ration books to get what they needed for their families.

But, then, as has been true any other time in history when things have been in short supply, some slimy individuals found ways to capitalize on the situation.

Black markets seem always to follow scarcity.

There will always be some individuals who will exploit the needs of those around them.

These people are beneath contempt, and should be rooted out and punished, rather than rewarded for their actions.

During the energy crisis of the 1970s, locking gas caps surged in popularity in response to a different kind of criminal.

Americans were forced to wait in long lines for gas. Availability was limited, and rationing was inevitable.

There was a segment of the population who did not feel they should have to wait in line or pay the high prices for gas.

It was a classic battle of the “haves” versus the “have-nots.”

Some people, feeling the pinch of limited supplies, went out and siphoned gas out of their neighbor’s gas tanks.

There were literally gangs of people going around with gas cans and siphon hoses, stealing gas whenever they could get away with it.

These were normally (mostly) law-abiding citizens, but the minute things got a little bit tight, it was every man for himself.

That is the frightening part.

In this country, most of us have had it pretty easy for a long time.

The fact that people are willing to assault or trample others to get some stupid video game console raises serious questions about how this society would handle any real shortages that might arise, especially shortages of essentials.

Is the veneer of civilized behavior really so thin that we are willing to abandon it at the merest hint of scarcity?

If so, there are some dark days ahead for all of us.