The White House has sounded a pessimistic note about the future recently, and with good reason. It would be imprudent to raise Americans’ expectations only to fail to meet them. And the near-term sounds depressingly bleak.
“There will be things that people can’t get,” one Biden administration official told Reuters reporters last week when asked if the conditions crippling the global supply chain will persist into the holiday shopping season. This official conceded that “we all feel the frustration,” adding “there’s a certain need for patience.” As inflation devours an ever-larger portion of American wages and shortages persist, patience is likely to become just another commodity in short supply.
Moreover, the administration has warned that the supply crunch could extend to inelastic goods such as energy. According to the U.S. Energy Information Agency, American households should expect to spend more to heat their homes this year than they have in “the past several winters.” Americans could pay anywhere from 22 to 50 percent more on natural gas this winter depending on temperature fluctuation. Propane-heated households could spend as much as 94 percent more this year than last.
It’s going to get ugly. Big box retailers are already rationing the sale of goods like toilet paper in some areas. A semi-conductor shortage has limited the availability of computerized products. New homebuilding in the U.S. “unexpectedly fell in September” due to “acute shortages” of raw materials. Companies are urging consumers to get their kids’ Christmas shopping done now to avoid disappointment later. American consumers have noticed all this, and some are starting to blame the Biden administration for their sudden privation.
That’s understandable, though not entirely fair. While the Biden administration deserves a healthy share of the blame for the sudden price hike in energy, the stresses imposed on the supply chain aren’t Joe Biden’s fault. The pandemic introduced new levels of consumer demand when, at the same time, foreign producers were compelled to limit production. A labor shortage has contributed to a dearth of truckers, warehouse workers, and stevedores to offload and transport imports. Freight-handling equipment and parts are becoming harder and harder to find. But demand isn’t easing up, forcing companies to place speculative orders for even more goods. “Global supply chains are not built for this,” one logistics expert told the Washington Post. “Everything is breaking down.”
That explains a complex problem, but it does nothing to relieve the anger Americans are experiencing. We’re likely to see that outrage express itself without much coherence, but it is a safe bet that the party with total control of the legislative and executive branches of the federal government will bear the brunt of it. Among those who believe it is their charge to shield the White House from criticism, that imperative has led them to criticize the complainers. It’s time for you to stop complaining, they say, and make do with what you have.
Small businesses that operate on modest margins in the best of times are struggling to find workers—a condition only exacerbated by pandemic-related relief measures that made reentering the workforce an unattractive prospect. “They can either keep whining about it or start figuring out ways to do more with less,” wrote Bloomberg’s Mark Gongloff. Specifically, businesses should invest in automation, he advises. Otherwise, employers can just “pay more” in wages. Simple enough. But those thin margins result in savings that are passed on to consumers in the form of lower prices. Boosting wages (and the prices of goods and services in the process) reduces those firms’ ability to compete with larger producers, which will only hurt small employers. Advising businesses to stop “whining” doesn’t address the problem—it just grants licenses to ignore it.
Average consumers aren’t enjoying any more sympathy from the commentariat. Washington Post columnist Micheline Maynard advises an anxious public that they can stave off disappointment if they just lower their expectations of what a functional economy should look like.
“American consumers, their expectations pampered and catered to for decades, are not accustomed to inconvenience,” she wrote. The “persistent whine” of the American consumer, who is “constantly on the verge of throwing a fit,” is more than a little gauche given the circumstances through which we’re all living. She draws from her own experience to make her point. For example, the scarcity of shopping bags recently forced her to carry her own groceries by hand. In an earlier age, the inconvenience would have irritated Maynard. “Now,” she wrote, “I was just glad the bakery was still in business.”
Some are even trying to transform the supply crunch into a didactic lesson about gratitude. “After all, holidays CAN be merry, VERY, without any presents at all,” Gongloff observed. Of course, they can. That otherwise valuable admonition to replace materialism with an appreciation for all with which you’ve already been blessed would be worthwhile if it was genuine. But when it’s designed only to stifle a politically inconvenient sentiment, this sort of high-handed reprimand will only produce more of what it’s trying to condemn.
The impulse to blame consumers for their unmet demands and scold businesses for suffering the effects of conditions that Washington engineered is so shockingly tone-deaf that it’s hard to imagine the White House will adopt this tactic. Hard, but not impossible. The Biden administration cannot resolve the fiendishly complex supply-chain crisis by fiat. They have no interest in reducing the inflationary pressures to which their policy preferences are contributing. The path of least resistance out of yet another ugly news cycle is to preen and posture. Scold the public for their greed, remind them that there are more important things in life than merchandise, and advise them to wear a sweater to offset heating costs.
We’ve seen that movie before. We know how it ends. But it might be the only script the president’s allies have left.