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'Hoarding' and 'price gouging' aren't pandemic-specific activities

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Empty shelves at a grocery store in La Vern, Southern California. Image: Russ Allison Loar/Flickr

Last month, I was going store-to-store looking for disinfectant wipes. I had heard from others that the fabric germ-killers were a hot commodity these days, but it took several fruitless episodes of shelf-scrounging for that reality to sink in. An employee at one of the barren retail outlets I visited told me that his store receives a shipment every morning and that, within minutes, every last plastic dispenser is gone. I was indignant at all the shoppers who had emptied the shelves, leaving me empty-handed. I blamed "the Hoarders."

As the reality of a global pandemic has descended upon us over the past few weeks, pretty much every aspect of our lives has changed. Things that were important now seem, or are, irrelevant (like the scores of a hockey game); those things we took for granted -- like being able to enter a store with goods a-plenty -- are no longer givens. With this seismic shift in the rhythms of daily life -- underwritten by an invisible killer circulating the air; air that we're now only able to take in on essential outings -- our energies and anxieties are understandably reorienting themselves.

One of the recent claims on our collective attention -- one that has become the subject of public, political and corporate discourse and action -- has been hoarding: the phenomenon of accumulating goods beyond one's immediate needs, to safeguard in the event of a shortage, and, as a result, hastening up that shortage for everyone else. Facebook users have been posting pictures to publicly shame perceived culprits; a Google search for "COVID hoarding" yields innumerable articles in the media decrying those who fill their shopping carts to the brim; elected officials have pleaded with Canadians to not participate in the frenzy; and stores have instituted one-per-person policies on pandemic-era golden products, like those precious disinfectant wipes.

The novel coronavirus has surely borne many-a-novel experience but, as for hoarding, well, that's hardly one of them. Sure, the physical stockpiling of toilet paper would have seemed dystopic a mere few months ago, but the concept of hoarding is foundational to a capitalist system, one governed by the logic that the limitless capacity to accumulate is the impetus for human innovation and productive activity. Hoarding is more than a right, so we're told, but a prerequisite for human prosperity.

And so, contradictorily, pandemic-era hoarding is being chided by the very political class that facilitates systemic hoarding. Federal tax revenues -- the state's primary anti-hoarding mechanism -- have been shrinking relative to the economy. Despite a "progressive" tax system, the burden of tax revenues is falling increasingly on the middle and lower classes: Canada's corporate tax rate was slashed by nearly half between 1997 and 2016 (with the effective tax rate even lower); and an upper limit on the taxable income rate, as well as loopholes benefitting the rich, mean that the wealthiest 1% pay an overall lower rate of tax than everyone else, including the poorest 10 per cent. Other state mechanisms enabling wealth concentration include: minimum wage levels that aren't indexed to the cost of living, making it legal for an employer to extract a full day's work from someone who can’t afford a place to live; insufficient social assistance rates; inadequate funding for social services (particularly those for Indigenous communities); neglected public infrastructure (health care, transit, schools, colleges/universities, internet access); privatization of publicly-funded assets; anti-competitive business laws; subsidies and bailouts to big business; an immigration system designed to exploit labour through legal precarity; a law and order establishment heavily invested in the protection of private property, while being relatively complacent about white collar crime, corporate tax fraud and labour injustice; a court system that routinely sides with the right to settler-colonial and imperial capitalist expansion over Indigenous sovereignty and labour justice; and international trade deals that prioritize profit-seeking over environmental sustainability, consumer protection and labour rights.  

The panoply of laws, norms, practices and mechanisms responsible for creating and sustaining this status quo expose the false premises underlying it.  

Firstly, that the state only intervenes for the welfare of the poor and marginalized, while the rich achieve their hoards independently. As Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks argue in The Trouble with Billionaires: "without the rubble of the interfering state,' the rich would have nothing … it is only possible for anyone to own anything -- money, land, jewellery, yachts -- if there is a state to create laws and enforce those laws … Indeed, a government-enforced system of property rights, while theoretically benefiting all, provides far greater benefits to the rich than to the rest of us." And, of course, businesses couldn't turn a profit without the roads, schools and hospitals built with public dollars; and many couldn't even do without regular bailouts and handouts. The state apparatus that metes out (insufficient) allowances to the poor draws from the same pool of money that (inordinately) finances personal excess. The free market system doesn't really operate all that freely; but capitalism functions to obscure itself, invisibilizing the public investment required to uphold its functioning and to line the pockets of its winners. 

Secondly, that coddling the corporate class and the rich is crucial for our prosperity. In general, interventions that support income equality are actually better for economic growth than ones, like tax cuts for the rich, that engender inequality. And, as we've seen, the promised benefits of lowering corporate taxes haven't materialized: employee wages have stagnated, and corporate investment is down. Meanwhile, CEOs are raking it in (23 of Canada's top companies paid more in compensation to their top executives in 2018 than they did in tax); and corporate tax savings are being channelled towards shareholder payouts, share-buybacks, and mergers, resulting in more concentrated and less competitive industries. 

But our government's desire to cultivate a business-friendly and rich-friendly climate isn't really tethered to the goal of collective benefit. In 2017, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau penned a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos asking him to consider Canada for its planned new headquarters, he was offering up the country, and its stolen resources, to a corporation that notoriously underpays, overworks and mistreats its employees to the point of physical injury, mental breakdown and even death; leaves in the wake of its operations a huge environmental footprint; expertly avoids taxes while accepting subsidies, ultimately making it a net beneficiary of public dollars; and is becoming (or arguably already is) a monopoly, an unattractive prospect even by capitalist standards. It is a corporation headed up by the world's most successful "hoarder" -- one who has enough money to "buy a house for every homeless person in America, fix Flint's pipes and cover food costs for food insecure households for six months, and still have more money leftover than most people could ever imagine." Gallingly, this same CEO -- who earns every 11.5 seconds what his lowest-paid employee earns in a year -- is soliciting donations to a pandemic relief fund for the very employees made poor by his business model. But this is what we should expect when Bezos' continued abundance depends upon the same systems of economic, environmental and racial injustice that he has the cash flow to fix. That PM Trudeau has now chosen Amazon for country-wide distribution of PPE reflects the common belief that big business is a necessary piece in the puzzle of human well-being and advancement. History, however, tells us the exact opposite; as Linda McQuaig writes: "it's not capitalism but rather the forces fighting to curb capitalism's worst excesses -- unions and progressive political movements -- that have improved people's lives."

Thirdly, that it is naive to imagine a society that better serves everyone. According to costed analysis by the CCPA, "the closure of expensive tax loopholes and higher taxes on corporate profits, extreme incomes and wealth would generate … enough to introduce national pharmacare and child care programs, eliminate post-secondary tuition fees, and cut poverty rates in half by 2025." These programs would even benefit the rich in terms of after-tax incomes; in fact, all but a small elite would stand to gain financially. The status quo isn't, in fact, inevitable; but as Canada's tax revenues dwindle and the pie becomes smaller, so too do our imaginations for something better.  

Just as hoarding isn't anomalous to the status quo, but foundational to it, so too is price gouging, also making headlines these days. Ontario Premier Doug Ford, for example, has threatened deep fines and possible imprisonment for gougers -- those seeking to profit from consumers' COVID-related desperation to hike up the prices of essential goods. Even Amazon has supported the effort to clamp down on the practice, by banning the sale of hot items like hand sanitizer. While these interventions are beneficial, they are nonetheless hypocritical coming from a political figure and a corporation deeply committed to the philosophies and operations of free enterprise. Indeed, according to the logics of this system, "there is no such thing as price gouging" -- shockingly high prices (and low ones) are mere reflections of market value; the ideal price of any good is determined by the 'invisible hand' of the market, which works to achieve equilibrium between supply and demand. Goals outside of profit-seeking -- such as equitable access -- are written out of the equation, and if anything, are considered hindrances to healthy market functioning. Indeed, 10 per cent of Canadians can't afford the cost of their prescription drugs and hundreds die every year as a result -- even while Big Pharma records higher profit margins than almost any other industry.  Yet, our federal government hasn't introduced national pharmacare (making it the only industrialized "universal" health-care system without drug coverage), even though such a system would reap massive savings for Canadians. Clearly, price gouging is precisely what this system not only allows for, but encourages, every day.

And so, we headed into pandemic season having long been subject to the severe misdistributions engendered by systemic hoarding and price gouging. In Canada, 1.3 million millionaires and 45 billionaires co-exist alongside 3.2 million people living below the poverty line; 1.34 million homes sit vacant or mostly vacant even while 235,000 people are homeless; 2.2 million tonnes of household food waste are generated each year even as 2.5 million people experience food insecurity. These socio-economic disparities translate into material ones; government data finds early death, disease and mental illness are inversely correlated with economic class. The richer we are, the better and longer are our lives. This -- more so than COVID shopping sprees and opportunistic price hikes -- accounts for the widespread chaos, suffering and death in our world, under pandemic or not.

Our political leaders oversee and facilitate this exact world order every day. So, if they are now taking action against a particular brand of hoarding and price gouging, then what they're rejecting is the auto-immune versions of these phenomena. In medicine, auto-immune refers to the misfiring of the body's self-protective features, causing them to attack the very organism they were designed to protect. Similarly, hoarding and gouging in the era of pandemic are considered worthy of intervention because these otherwise standard features of the system are turning around on it, attacking even its intended beneficiaries. Indeed, if the price of hand sanitizer is too high, and disinfectant wipes too sparse, then even the 1% will be negatively impacted by civil unrest, strain on the health-care system and an incapacitated workforce.  

The auto-immune metaphor only applies so far, however. Because while the proper functioning of the body's immune system keeps it safe, the proper functioning of our economic system nonetheless ensures misery, deprivation, fear, despair and death for the majority of the world's people. Our goal can't just be to restore functionality, then; treatment means nothing short of bodily overhaul.  

Until we get there, I'll work on cultivating empathy for those with whom I'm vying for the few remaining items on the shelves. Like me, they've been socialized into a world of manufactured deprivation; one in which the learned response to crisis is just a hyperactive version of the ruthless self-interest required of us every other day. Of course, we can ask for better from each other; taking our cue from, say, Pakistan -- where 25 per cent of people can't even afford to eat two times a day, but where charitable giving has become so overwhelming since the outbreak that some prospective givers are having their donations turned away. So maybe we could aim a little higher. But regardless, we're at the store fighting over toilet paper because, however unkindly we're behaving, we're not Jeff Bezos -- whose status-quo hoarding behaviours allow him to opt out of this particular ad-hoc variety. I think I'll save my anger for him, and the system that created and sustains him, rather than whoever it was who took that last dispenser of disinfectant wipes.   

Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming, and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.

Image: Russ Allison Loar/Flickr

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