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Thursday, July 26, 2018

Rationing

During times of war, when normal supply lines are disrupted, it's common to see food and fuel being rationed. A simple definition of rationing is "When someone else decides how much of a commodity you can own or buy." Today we see rationing in places experiencing economic downfall or failure of a government, with consumable goods like food, fuel, and clothing being limited to what you can produce yourself or a small amount through normal channels. Massive inflation (usually caused by failure of a government or monetary system), trade embargoes (politics), war (government), and major natural disasters can all lead to rationing. How would you react to a rationing system?

During both world wars, so much production was shifted to the support of the military that consumer goods were rare or non-existent. Some examples:
  • You're going to have trouble finding a picture of a 1944 Ford or Dodge car, because those factories were making tanks and aircraft by then. 
  • Pennies were made out of steel for a few years because copper was so essential to the war effort.
  • Anything that had to be imported was likely to be scarce or unavailable, so tropical fruits and chocolate became very expensive. 
  • Coffee and tea likewise became scarce and substitutes like Chickory root were used instead. 
  • Transportation systems were also placed under government control, so shipments of goods within the county were severely disrupted. 
Looking back at the Soviet Union and some of the stories I've heard of their mismanaged supply chains, where they couldn't even get bread without standing in line, I dread the idea of a government-run economy. The analogy I got from a former resident of the Soviet Union was that everything was rationed, and the currency itself was their form of ration card. Ordinary people never had enough currency to get everything they needed, and that was by design.

Today we see electricity being rationed. They don't use that word; they prefer to call it a “rolling brown-out” or insist that you have a “smart meter” that is controlled from a central office. They'll often offer you a discount on your electrical bill if you let them control your heat and air conditioning during the day (while you're at work).

I don't have any contacts in Puerto Rico, but I've heard/read that they are still living with limited clean water, sewer service, and electricity in many areas almost a year after Hurricane Maria tore the island up. Food supplies are improving, but not back to what they were.

Several things happen when rationing is instituted:
  • People become very resourceful. If all of the rubber tires were being sent to the front lines of a war, farmers went back to steel wheels on their tractors. Ingenuity is a virtue. 
  • Recycling gets a real workout, with nothing being thrown away until it has to be replaced. People start to realize the value of what they have been throwing in the trash. 
  • Repair shops suddenly become feasible again. If you can't get a replacement, see if you can get your old (whatever) fixed. Skills can be as useful as goods in this area. 
  • “Alternative markets”, also known as gray or black markets, spring up everywhere. If the people in power say something, you can bet that there is someone who will try to find a way around it. Unofficial trade is often outlawed, but it will never be fully stopped. 
  • People start to provide for themselves. Victory gardens were strongly suggested and supported during the world wars as a way to use non-productive ground like yards and parks to grow food for the local citizens, easing the burden of the transportation system. Locally grown food is also healthier and tastier than something that has been shipped in from hundreds or thousands of miles away. 
  • Bulk smuggling becomes very profitable. Today's smugglers carry relatively small, value-dense things like drugs, gems, or guns, but food becomes much more important once it becomes scarce. Things like sugar, coffee, spices and citrus fruits that aren't grown in the USA will rival cocaine and marijuana in profit margin. 
  • People begin to move out of unsustainable areas. Unless you have a job with guaranteed delivery of life's essentials, why would you want to live in a city that can't support itself? Urban areas become less attractive and rural areas see a lot more immigrants. This is not always a good thing, since many of those fleeing an urban environment are ill-suited to rural life. 

There's a good chance that when the SHTF, it will be a slow process. Without an asteroid strike or EMP attack, our systems are most likely to die a slow, wheezing death due to the inertia they have built up over decades. Rationing is likely to be one of the steps forced on us either as we rebuild, or as the system shuts down for good to be replaced by something different.

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