It’s hard to believe it’s happening, but there it is: Last week Reuters reported that here in the good ol’ USA, the land of plenty, the greatest nation in the history of the world, we are now in the practice of rationing essential foodstuffs.
It’s true: Wal-Mart and its subsidiary Sam’s Club are rationing rice. Costco, after facing a sugar shortage earlier in the year, is rationing sales of flour as well. Wheat, corn, rice… the stuff of life seems to be in short supply.
Not that we’ve never rationed before. During World War II, of course, the government rationed sugar, meat, butter, gasoline and some other items. And some of us are old enough to remember the energy crises of the 1970s that resulted in gas shortages and a rationing system.
But never before has the US limited purchase of staples like flour and rice.
It’s happening, to greater and lesser degrees, all over the world. Riots in Haiti. Food lines in Pakistan. But these are places where the term “essential foodstuff” takes on a whole new meaning. But here in the US, we’re not used to having limits set on our consumption, and we want to buy as much rice as we damn well please.
The free marketers should hate this, because it’s the ultimate government intervention. It’s practically socialism.
And the conspiracy theorists will say that it’s all artificial, a situation created by the vast rice-wing conspiracy to inflate the price of the world’s most notorious grain. The same thing, they’ll tell you, happened with gasoline, which is now roughly triple the price it was just six years ago.
Far-fetched, to be sure… but it’s impossible to deny that the world’s resources are getting more dear.
Rationing is not necessarily a bad thing. Certainly as Americans we consume far too much of everything, from kilowatt hours to deep-fried snack foods to sake, which we probably don’t have to tell you is made with rice. If we can’t curb our own ravenous appetites for all things under the sun, a spot of government intervention could be wise. And ask a member of the Greatest Generation the salubrious effects of rationing on the sense of community that existed during their war.
It also doesn’t mean that the sky is falling. Rationing has yet to spread nationwide, and the limits imposed on the purchase of rice are fairly generous, put in place more to prevent hoarding than domestic starvation.
But the rationing of rice and flour should be taken seriously as an economical harbinger. It has never happened here before. And this is just the beginning.
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