rationing: how feasible?
March 18, 2020 1:24 AM   Subscribe

So, with supermarkets being emptied, some people are commenting online demanding a return to WWII and post-war era rationing: that is, coupons issued to residents that can be exchanged for essential food/goods. This would prevent hoarding, because once you use your coupon you can't go to the next shop over and buy more. Interested in how feasible this would be in the modern era? (Australia, specifically.)
posted by freethefeet to Law & Government (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It's perfectly feasible. SNAP in the US is not a great program, but as a system it works well. You have a value on a card; it's topped up automagically by an amount dependent on family size; when your credit runs out, it's out. There are foods you are not allowed to buy with SNAP, and that's also managed by the card; controlling amounts would be possible as well.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:28 AM on March 18, 2020 [1 favorite]

But SNAP isn't population-wide, is it? At the moment you can use your SNAP to get stuff- if someone who is not-SNAP hasn't bought it all first.
posted by freethefeet at 1:36 AM on March 18, 2020

My point is that extending that system to be system-wide is feasible.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:53 AM on March 18, 2020 [7 favorites]

AFAIK ration coupons weren't used to pay for the food - you still needed money. The ration tickets basically functioned as permission to buy the food (or clothes or whatever).

SNAP cards are basically debit cards, and the limitations on what can be purchased with them are enforced by the stores, not by some sort of technology built into the card - the card itself doesn't know what the $20.67 you just spent actually consists of.

A digital or card-based solution that you swipe alongside your payment card or cash payment might be possible but it would require a completely different technological solution, not an extension of the SNAP system.
posted by cilantro at 2:15 AM on March 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

The situations are different. This is not wartime and Australia is not faced with a shortfall in supply, only in logistics; and this is not due to a collapse in existing logistics capacity, just an unanticipated spike in demand. Production rates remain completely adequate to meet consumption rates; all that's happening at present is a temporary change in the public perception of the best place to hold stock. Normally that's in warehouses and distribution centres but consumers' homes have become a more popular choice over the past week or two.

Once the panic-stricken lemmings currently stripping retail shelves have finished shifting their savings from dollars in their bank accounts to floor-to-ceiling stacks of toilet paper, load on the delivery chains will fall back to its pre-panic levels and social media will move on to spreading spurious ideas about the next unhelpful non-solution to the problems posed by COVID-19.

Moves are already afoot to lift noise-prevention curfews on the operation of supermarket delivery trucks, which should keep a bit more stock on the shelves and help settle the FOMO down some.

By the time any card scheme that's even vaguely workable could possibly be rolled out here, there will be no need for it. Though I wouldn't put it past the present clown car to impose one on welfare recipients anyway, just because they can; there is nothing Scott Morrison likes more than Being Seen To Be Doing Something, no matter how asinine.

Meanwhile, as a resident of regional Victoria I would appreciate it if Melbournians stopped driving out here solely for the purpose of stripping our supermarkets. That's the opposite of supporting bushfire-affected communities.
posted by flabdablet at 2:40 AM on March 18, 2020 [81 favorites]

Poland had it in the 80s due to centrally mismanaged production (both money and coupons required for purchase of very limited amounts of meat, dairy, tea, coffee, chocolate etc). All it got us was a very well-functioning black market where farmers would distribute their products directly-to-consumer. The iconic image is the "veal lady" who'd come into your home with unhygienic newspaper-wrapped lumps of illegally slaughtered, bone-and-skin veal and beef. Anecdotally, at 178cm I'm on the tallest edge of my martial-law-born cohort, but compared to younger Millennials I'm much closer to average, so I suspect it resulted in some moderate stunting of our generation by at least 3-4cm...
posted by I claim sanctuary at 2:47 AM on March 18, 2020 [6 favorites]

Meanwhile, as a resident of regional Victoria I would appreciate it if Melbournians stopped driving out here solely for the purpose of stripping our supermarkets. That's the opposite of supporting bushfire-affected communities.

Here here, flabdablet. It was this very situation that prompted me to ask this question.
posted by freethefeet at 3:41 AM on March 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

Whoa, those stories are true?! OK, I was coming in to say the same as flabdablet that it is a logistics issue than a full on famine/shortage issue so rationing could be done but not necessary. The world has gone batcrapcrazy.
posted by jadepearl at 4:30 AM on March 18, 2020

Right, The food isn't going to run out, but how do you stop the people who are buying way more than they need and causing real issues?
posted by freethefeet at 4:55 AM on March 18, 2020

but how do you stop the people who are buying way more than they need and causing real issues?

Here in the UK some supermarkets are introducing special shopping hours just for the elderly and vulnerable, so they get first opportunity to buy. They're not committing to strict enforcement of it though, more relying on community shaming which is unlikely to work on the shameless.
posted by stillnocturnal at 5:07 AM on March 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

That kind of old-school rationing system would be easy to roll out. Your agricultural goods are already being inspected, labeled, and controlled federally, so a bureaucracy is already in place - distributing coupons or cards to the stores is the easy part.

But as flabdablet points out, Australia can feed itself.

Although this is two years old and fires have briefly changed things, in many places fires have probably created more arable land. This is not to say that the Neo-Malthusian fuckwits in charge of much of the world won't start rationing anyway, but if it happens in the short term it will most likely be out of venality/price-fixing/rent-seeking/dictator-LARPing.

China could very well have a problem already, especially if Xi and Trump continue their saber-rattling. And if you want to worry about an English-speaking* island right this second, worry about the UK.

*yes I know.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:09 AM on March 18, 2020

There are also restrictions on what people can buy now - Sainsbury's for example has just announced limiting people to three of any one grocery product and two packs of toilet roll. Are shops in other countries not doing this?
posted by stillnocturnal at 5:13 AM on March 18, 2020

In Australia for sure there are lots of limits (2 packs of anything in some stores) but people then just store hop. (Even travelling to other towns, as rumored, and reported on.) Or go out and come back. The shops are stripped bare- not because of a lack of supply, but that doesn't help you when you come into town once a week for your big shop, and you happen to be there before they restock.
posted by freethefeet at 5:21 AM on March 18, 2020

(sorry I feel like I'm threadsitting, will step out now.)
posted by freethefeet at 5:21 AM on March 18, 2020

The panic can't last. At least in Australia, I figure we're due for our collective "WTF was I thinking" moment in days, not weeks.

Meanwhile, the Internet has just descended into completely irredeemable farce. I used to joke about how-to-wipe-your-arse videos on YouTube but they're a thing now. It's like people have just forgotten how to use a shower.

Meanwhile, I'll just be paying my local general store's comparatively ridiculous prices for things I'd usually put off buying until the next trip into town. Local stores are much better placed to avoid over-supplying out-of-area panic buyers than any structurally, deliberately, chronically and increasingly understaffed supermarket could ever be.
posted by flabdablet at 6:27 AM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

HEre's the thing, people remember WWII rationing nostalgically, but it was not perfect. It probably did do a lot to control the flow of supplies, and most people complied. However, there was endless ration cheating and it gave rise to black markets immediately. This book has more on what happened.
posted by Miko at 6:32 AM on March 18, 2020 [9 favorites]

Agreeing with flabdablet. This is totally just in time inventory management meeting a rise in demand, because everything is planned months if not years ahead to allow for pretty much no one keeping surpluses of stock, to maximise profits. You're seeing the downsides, it works fine as long as there is no sudden increase in demand that wasn't planned for, even more so when that increase in demand is everywhere all at once.
posted by wwax at 6:57 AM on March 18, 2020 [5 favorites]

Just to add: Limiting to eg 3 of the same item is counterproductive because it keeps people coming back to the stores frequently (and also hitting multiple stores), increasing exposure, rather than isolating.

(3 large packs of TP being an obvious exception to that rule, but 3 cans of beans, say, is a suboptimal limit for a family of 5 who has pantry space for a month.)
posted by joeyh at 7:23 AM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

The reason you put limits is because people should not be shopping for a month even if they have pantry space. This is the cause of the problem! There are more than enough cans of beans being made to feed everyone, but not enough being sent to your local store to give everyone a month's supply. Once you are in an area where inventory is being depleted, if you are buying more than you need it means someone else is going without. Please don't do that.

I realize there are good motivations but it doesn't help public health to cause local supply shortages. This becomes doubly defeating if people lose confidence in the ability to find what they need and try to keep a month's supplies on hand. Because then they're still shopping frequently to feed themselves and leaving that pantry full as emergency rations.

People like me, who walked over the store to buy just a lemon or pint of milk should obviously be changing our habits to make one trip a week or so. But trying to buy as if you aren't going to hit a store again for a month isn't supportable.
posted by mark k at 8:13 AM on March 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

So this isn't Australia-specific, but as a deployed soldier in South Korea, I lived with ration books for cigarettes and alcohol as a way to limit black marketers. Ration books are incredibly simple to implement - you just create them for each of the goods someone might want to buy, then tell the cashiers not to sell to anyone without a stamp. When you go to the store, you bring your ration books.

However, like a poster said above, it's extremely vulnerable to exploitation. You're not supposed to share ration books, but people did all the time. I remember vividly one alcohol run where multiple people's ration books were involved. It would be really hard to prevent people with a lot of money from buying other people's ration books - and once you are trying to individually write or print names in them and have cashiers check them against IDs, you introduce a level of complication that makes them hard to utilize.
posted by corb at 8:58 AM on March 18, 2020 [3 favorites]

The modern-esque way to implement this would be to distribute a mandatory app, and then legally require that all purchases be conducted via that app (NFC), with all purchases being stored centrally. The app verifies the ID of the purchaser, checks the proposed purchase against quotas, and either processes or declines the proposed transaction. Phone+app for seller, phone+app for buyer, handshake & verify, execute transaction, update quotas.

You'd need to change or ignore a bunch of laws for this to work (and maybe even demonetize your existing currency), but it could be done. It could probably not, however, be done before the absurd panic-buying winds down.

Alternative: some US states have a central ephedrine-tracking system that monitors all ephedrine/pseudoephedrine purchases to identify people who may be manufacturing methamphetamine. It's relatively low-impact, the purchaser mainly needs to click a button on the point-of-sale terminal saying they acknowledge the limits, in some cases sign their name, and in some cases have their ID scanned). You could probably rejigger that system to work for ALL purchases, although I think you'd need to also rejigger a large'ish number of store point-of-sale terminals. Then you just monitor quotas, identify illicit purchases, and send the cops 'round. Probably wouldn't take many people getting nailed before purchases settle down. Implementation time, however, is still over a year.
posted by aramaic at 10:10 AM on March 18, 2020

Implementation time, however, is still over a year

and implementation cost would be higher than sending Australia Post vans around to every house in the nation with two packets of toilet paper to drop on the doorstep.
posted by flabdablet at 10:13 AM on March 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

If people are store hopping one thing the stores could do to accompany their item limits is just draw a big X on people’s hands when they visit! (Can Coronavirus survive in Sharpie ink?)
posted by mskyle at 11:08 AM on March 18, 2020

Social pressure will lead to supermarkets implementing their own rationing systems, so I doubt that any more centralised system will be justified. However, this thing is steadily worsening, and next week may look very different to this week.

A perspective on the return to normality of stocked supermarket shelves: the stock held by households has to be consumed before normality returns. That dozen or so packs (not rolls) of loo paper has to be used before more is bought. There will therefore be a period of low demand for the product following the current spike. The period of low demand will be longer for something like loo paper, where consumption is relatively fixed, than for say pasta, where a decision to 'use it up' can see it substituted for other food - though that of course has knock-on effects on the 'other food'!
posted by GeeEmm at 3:02 PM on March 18, 2020

Although if they are using up all of their pasta or other stocked foods they may have an increased need for the toilet paper.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:03 PM on March 18, 2020

So I'll chime in as an economist doing COVID19-related scenario planning in Australia:

Once the panic-stricken lemmings

You might not like these people, their actions, or the outcomes (I sure as hell don't), but they're entirely rational actors. There's no reason why there should be shortages, but there are, and people realised that pretty early. People can't buy stuff today that these lemmings have in abundance. Sure, we can sit here on our high horses tut-tutting from the high ground but they have meat, UHT milk and toilet paper right now when a lot of people don't, and won't for some time. Pillaging the commons has worked out pretty well for them. Even if it's only for the short term, it's still a win.

Australia is not faced with a shortfall in supply, only in logistics; and this is not due to a collapse in existing logistics capacity, just an unanticipated spike in demand

It hasn't collapsed yet, but there's a greater-than-zero not-high-enough-to-panic-but-totally-a-thing-that-could-happen chance that they will, at least enough to make a real impact in some sectors, and again, that's enough for k-step rational actors to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. We're producing, manufacturing, shipping and selling stuff today. All it take is for a decent number of people in any one of those steps in any given sectors to stay at home, or for a single supermarket chain to say "enough, our marginal utility is too low" and pull an Apple and we'll find ourselves at the top of a slippery slope with a bunch of the same rational actors standing behind us, pushing really hard to get past.

Note that the above doesn't have to actually happen; enough people just need to believe it will happen for it to come true enough to make a difference.

We also have a lot of recent-enough experience from places like the former Soviet states showing that rationing cards and similar systems just promote corruption, hoarding and thriving black markets. Theft from stores skyrockets, including by staff who straight up stop giving a shit and rationalise that they'll share with with their families and neighbours and they're stopping "the wrong people" from getting stuff. Officials paid to enforce the system come to value scarce goods as bribes more than the slight risk they'll lose their salaries. The poor do worse, the wealthy do better than ever.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 5:35 PM on March 18, 2020 [4 favorites]

That dozen or so packs (not rolls) of loo paper has to be used before more is bought.

Forgot to say - it totally doesn't. People will happily hoard until they perceive that everybody else has stopped, but it has to be everybody else first. Supply at home ceases to be the driver of demand; perceived supply in the market at some point in the future, coloured by a belief that greedy irrational tides of bogan scum could take it all, becomes the driver instead.
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 5:42 PM on March 18, 2020 [2 favorites]

Umm, no, read the preceding sentence. My point is that stockpiles will be consumed/run down, and when that starts, the shelves will stop being emptied as quickly as they can be stocked. In fact, that will lead to a depression in demand at the store/manufacturer level (over 'normal') as those stocks are run down. The key here is 'when', and the time period between the first person deciding to start running down stocks, and the last person deciding that - the period over which we switch from a hoarding mentality to one of 'what do I need this week' shopping. Having said that I agree with what you say in both posts. And at this point I am not going to even going think about what might be required for that transition to start happening.

No more from me, carry on ...
posted by GeeEmm at 7:04 PM on March 18, 2020

they're entirely rational actors

The thing about reason is that its outcomes can only ever work as well as its premises.

It might well be rational to proceed from the premise that shortages might ensue at some future point to the conclusion that acting in ways that directly cause shortages right now is the most reasonable course of action, but that doesn't make the unstated extra premise of fuck you I got mine any more honourable.

People who have been doing that need to take a good hard look in the mirror and just. fucking. stop. Giving them some kind of out by telling them they're acting "rationally" is not helping, regardless of how "correct" that position might be from a narrow theoretical game-theory point of view.

To the extent that game theory is at all applicable to the present circumstances, it would behove game theorists to consider a game theoretical analysis of the massive surge in relief donations that good folks all over the nation have been directing toward bushfire victims. The vast bulk of that relief, like the vast bulk of everything that happens in this country, came out of the major cities and cannot be explained by kind of narrow, self-interested "rationality" so often assumed by game theorists.

No, I don't like the fucking lemmings, and nobody needs to be making anything even vaguely resembling excuses for their knee-jerk under-informed fear-driven fear-promoting bullshit. Just stop, dickheads. We're all in the same boat, and there are people who need the bog roll and white rice more than you do. Stop stealing it off them.

And you know what? Until somebody has actually internalized that point of view, no amount of official rationing is capable of changing their behaviour in any way that actually improves the situation for the rest of us.
posted by flabdablet at 2:26 AM on March 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

One of the things I find most irritating about the present state of play is the apparent unwillingness of the mealy-mouthed Morrison to come out and say what I've just said with approximately that degree of disapproval. No equivocation, no wishy washy bullshit about understanding why people might be frightened, just straight-up hammering the message that if you've been taking more out of the shops than you normally would THEN YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF AND YOU NEED TO STOP DOING THAT.

There is obviously no hope of that useless shitweasel ever exhibiting actual leadership, but that's what the nation needs him to do.
posted by flabdablet at 2:44 AM on March 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

The modern-esque way to implement this would be to distribute a mandatory app

In the UK at least, you'd need to distribute a mandatory smartphone to install it on too - yes, there's been very wide takeup, but using my own family as an example, neither my mother nor my grandmother has (or wants) one.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 5:17 AM on March 19, 2020 [1 favorite]

OK, so rationing is probably not feasible to roll out quickly, and also probably causes more problems.

We just have to grit our teeth, not buy more than we need, and encourage our social circles to not buy more than they need.
posted by freethefeet at 7:20 PM on March 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Giving them some kind of out by telling them they're acting "rationally" is not helping...

It answered the question. It explained why people behave the way they do in a crisis. It explained why rationing won't work - which was the question, which is what this site is about.

nobody needs to be making anything even vaguely resembling excuses for their knee-jerk under-informed fear-driven fear-promoting bullshit

Perhaps dial it back a bit. This is Ask, not Rant. I get that you're angry, but you're demanding others not to respond to their base urges while clearly responding to yours. I'm sure you think you're justified. So do they.

I'm not making excuses for people who buy more than they need. I argued that your characterisation of these people as lemmings was inaccurate, and now I'll point out that you're the one letting them off the hook by making it. It's not reasonable to hold people to account if they're genuinely in fear - in your words, "panic driven". Following the crowd is a useful and entirely understandable heuristic in these cases.

I'm pointing out that in many cases, they're actually calmly calculated in their decision-making. This isn't people desperately scrambling for bags of grain off the back of the only refugee supply truck in the village. This is people looking at Facebook and thinking "There might be shortages. There shouldn't be, but look at what everybody is saying; there will be shortages if they keep believing their could be. Which approach maximises my outcomes in both scenarios? It's not doing the right thing, unless everybody does that, and we all know they won't. The best thing for my family is to beat these hoarders at their own game. Of course, I'm not a hoarder. They started it. I've been forced into this position. My honour is intact."

There's no panic when they gather their reusable bags and head to Colesworth. There's just grim determination to get what's theirs before somebody else takes it. And as their family enjoys cleaning up last night's risotto with some lovely three ply, they were entirely justified, according to their own utilitarian criteria, which is all most people use for everything, all of the time. And that's why rationing doesn't work. Everybody thinks of themselves as an honourable exception fighting against injustice perpetuated by the irrational, greedy masses. If they don't take it, somebody else less honourable will.

You think that's reprehensible. That's fine, but that wasn't the bloody question.

The bushfires strike me as a strange comparison. First, there was plenty of hoarding during the fires as well - face masks and bottled water spring to mind. Rationing in the form of store-imposed limits and later controls over pharmacy-dispensed government-supplied masks didn't stop this one bit. Second, very few gave more than they could afford to the fire recovery effort. Certainly nobody faced the prospect of being locked inside for two weeks or more without essential supplies as a result of donating. It's not strange to think "I can spare twenty bucks for somebody in Cobargo", but also think "damn straight I'm buying more pasta than I need this week".

I'm not much for hypotheticals, because who could ever top Geoffrey Robertson, but if coronavirus had hit Australia in December, do you really think we'd all have donated quite as much to fire relief in January and February as we did?
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 10:06 PM on March 19, 2020

your characterisation of these people as lemmings was inaccurate

Fair point. After all, lemmings don't actually decide that getting ahead of the game is the correct approach to a mass drowning. That's more a human thing.

Regardless of our differences on the rationality of individual lemmings or the utility of making public statements that could be construed as approval of their thinking, it does seem that we are in heated agreement about the pointlessness of ration cards.
posted by flabdablet at 11:34 PM on March 19, 2020

but how do you stop the people who are buying way more than they need and causing real issues?

Take into account that while these people do exist, a substantial contribution to empty shelves is normal people buying just one or two extra things. Here in the UK for instance, major supermarkets have restricted people to buying a max three of any item. Great, except that I would never ordinarily buy more than one *maybe* two packs of pasta at a time, If I and everyone else buy our allotted max of 3, then they will very quickly run out.
posted by atrazine at 3:33 AM on March 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Our nearest supermarket is in a bigger town so I generally do a supermarket run every fortnight or so, which means my usual buy is quite large. To feed three cats for two weeks generally takes us about a dozen cans each of kitten food and adult cat food, so it's been my habit to buy cat food two cardboard trays of cans at a time.

If there's anything like a max-of-three rationing policy in place when I go into town again in a few days, I'm obviously going to need to be spending a shitload more on fuel than I usually do for the next little while. Old cat is prone to urinary tract issues and the vet has strongly advised against dry food for him.

Bairnsdale is 297km from Melbourne and yet we're still having our shelves stripped by a surge of supermarket tourists. And yes, it is tourists, it's not just locals buying a bit extra. The city must be fucking dire.

Quite glad of our backyard chooks and zucchini vines right now.
posted by flabdablet at 4:38 AM on March 23, 2020

So yeah, there were some people attempting (and in this case, failing) to profiteer. Some of it was people just buying what they needed, or a little more.

Ultimately the solution was a lock-down, which meant that people weren't able to be out as often, and also the supply chains caught up. Also I think the shaming and wallet hurting of people throwing out expired fresh food after realizing it's difficult to stockpile milk.
posted by freethefeet at 4:58 PM on April 17, 2020

That dickhead is due for a huge simultaneous Muntz laugh from the entire rest of the populace.

Enjoy your super clean arsehole, fuckwad.
posted by flabdablet at 4:40 AM on April 18, 2020

their own utilitarian criteria, which is all most people use for everything, all of the time.

That is a simple but very true insight.

I made a biweekly store run yesterday. They are now limiting meat - 2 packages of meats, any type, per order.

They were also making a lot of clumsy and inexpertly implemented attempts to control the flow of traffic and manage 6' buffers by taping arrows on the store floor for one-way flow. People blithely ignored both the arrows and the 6' buffer. I came home filled with rage at my fellow Americans.
posted by Miko at 7:53 AM on April 19, 2020

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