The moment it became clear that Hurricane Sandy would likely batter the Northeast, swarms of speculators descended into markets there. They stormed into supermarkets, hardware stores and gasoline stations.
These speculators bought up unusually large quantities of bottled water, canned goods, ice, candles, batteries, generators, gasoline and other staples. Speculators made these purchases because they understood — correctly, we must grant — that the value of these goods would become unusually high in the immediate aftermath of whatever devastation the hurricane had in store.
These speculators did what speculators always do: seek personal gain by buying low today goods whose value will be higher tomorrow.
Naturally, the speculators were motivated only by their own self-interests. They gave no thought to the negative consequences their actions inflicted on innocent people. But negative consequences there were.
Many consumers who sought to buy even normal quantities of bottled water or batteries found, when they got to the stores, that the shelves were bare. The speculators had cleaned the stores out. They cornered the market on the very goods that were most needed in this time of distress. Put differently, the cost — measured in money, time or aggravation — required to grab even just a chance of actually getting some of these highly coveted goods was driven skyward by these speculators.
You'd think that the politicians and pundits who reliably and boisterously criticize speculators would have condemned this pre-Sandy speculation. But oddly, they did not. In fact, they actively encouraged it! I heard them myself on television and radio: “Stock up now on batteries and water,” they repeatedly implored the speculators.
What makes this pre-Sandy speculation even worse than the kinds of speculation often criticized by government officials and talking heads is that these speculators were even more greedy than most. The pre-Sandy speculators who hoarded bottled water and batteries planned to keep these hoards only for themselves.
Other speculators — say, Wall Street tycoons who buy up lots of gasoline when fears of war in the Middle East rise — speculate only with the intention of selling tomorrow the goods they stockpile today. But at least these speculating tycoons are not so selfish as to want to consume all their hoards themselves. These speculating tycoons will profit only by releasing their stockpiled goods into markets — making those goods available to consumers precisely during times when additional supplies of those goods are most needed.
The pre-Sandy speculators, though, don't plan ever to release on the market the goods they stockpiled. No. These speculators intend to keep the goods only for themselves and their families. Of course, they can be defended by pointing out that it's perfectly proper for people to anticipate the future and to make arrangements accordingly. Such planning is really all that the moms and dads and wives and husbands did, as Sandy bore down on the East Coast, to take good care of their families. It's unfortunate that in our world of scarcity, new supplies of products such as batteries and gasoline don't miraculously materialize simply because people's demand for these things rise, but that's reality. So I guess that what these speculating consumers did really isn't so bad after all.
And, just maybe, the speculation done by Wall Street tycoons is equally unobjectionable.
Donald J. Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. His column appears twice monthly.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Rossi: After L.A., NFL should tread carefully
- Acme man’s ephemeral sculptures appear to defy laws of physics
- Starter Liriano strikes out 12, leads Pirates to series sweep of Mets
- Kennywood fanatic, 82, rides Jack Rabbit 95 times in a row
- Oncologists wary of scaled-back guidelines in cancer screenings
- Early success in White House race a pleasant surprise for Carson
- Neighbor arrested after McKeesport house fire, authorities say
- Cochran repair center planned in Harrison
- Motorcyclist killed after striking pole in Penn Township
- A family’s flag flies again in Mt. Pleasant
- Memorial Day service in National Cemetery of the Alleghenies still growing