Shortages Looming? Inflation Rampant? Collapse Inevitable?

A sensational headline to be sure, but there's something rather unsettling going on in retail.

A couple evenings ago I stopped at the Wal-Mart on the way home, and what I saw shocked me: One - there were a lot of empty shelves in just about every department. There was (of course) little ammo to be had. No surprise there. But, there were big gaps on the shelves in the toiletries and first aid aisles, and a lot of empty space where cookware belonged. Thankfully, they had the things I went for - canning jar lids, mainly, and I snagged a few more 100 hour candles and some basic OTC medical stuff.

Because I buy so far ahead on everthing, it's been a while since I bought some of these basic items. What's happened to the hair spray I buy is illustrative: the bottle has shrunk from 12 ounces to 10, and the price is up almost 20% over the old 12 ounce bottle. This is great! In an attempt to mask inflation they've made the bottle smaller, meaning packaging, shipping and handling costs are now a much higher percentage of my purchase. The same has been happening with many things I don't ever buy, such as boxed cereal, and this has been all over the news. Now I've seen it firsthand.

I checked several other items that I stock at home and found the same thing has happened to them. Toothpaste tubes are smaller. Bleach comes in three quart bottles instead of gallons. Not only are we paying more for less, but (due to the packaging/product ratio) the delivery system itself has become markedly less efficient. Rising prices aren't good, but it's this loss of efficiency that concerns me most.

In his book "The Collapse of Complex Societies" Joseph Tainter makes the case that societies tend to to collapse when complexity increases to the point of causing diminished marginal returns. In too many ways we're at - or even past - that point. The regulatory burden springs to mind, as does the shrinking return on our labor - a return which will shrink a whole lot more as the effects of all the current money printing and spending comes home to roost. We're experiencing diminishing marginal returns everywhere I look, and now we have a substantial drop in efficiency in the delivery of basic consumer products to add to our list of woes.

Stock up while you can!

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