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The land of plenty sinks Into anxiety

Froma Harrop on

A friend and I shared the same consumer frustration -- and guilt over having it. We each wanted a bike rack for our cars but could not obtain our first choices.

"I wanted to order a 1UP bike rack," my pal, who used to manufacture sports equipment, said. "Sold out and won't take orders until August 29th."

Apparently, there's a shortage of bikes as well, and, to get granular, a dearth of 26-inch inner tubes for their tires.

My friend also wanted a specific golf push cart. "Every model sold out," he said, "with no forecasted availability."

These are high-end problems, hence some hesitation to talk about them. Millions of Americans have lost jobs and are looking down the abyss. Renters who risk eviction can hardly contemplate buying a skateboard, much less a golf push cart. By the way, skateboards are also in short supply.

American consumers always assumed that the market economy would produce whatever legal good or service they had the dollars to buy. And in recent pre-COVID times of low unemployment, American workers assumed the labor market would always be able to supply a job with a paycheck at the end of the week.

 

That may explain why so many Americans lack any kind of savings. The economic safety net, in many minds, was not money set aside but the expectation that one could always find employment in a plentiful job market.

Then the coronavirus happened and assumptions evaporated. There are now 14.7 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic, and Clorox wipes are still hard to come by.

The earlier sense of panic has eased at my Costco, but you can still see shoppers piling up a decade's worth of paper towels despite evidence of ample supply. Emptied of boxes once filled with abundance, Costco's upper shelves now resemble skeletons.

The Federal Reserve Bank is supposed to support the economy in hard times, but as the pandemic drains so much consumer confidence, Fed officials express more worry than reassurance. The only way to restore that confidence, they say, is to get a handle on the virus.

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