David R. Henderson  

Tales of Rationing

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In yesterday's post, I stated:

David Kennedy makes the claim that rationing was not used extensively in the United States during World War II. I think he's wrong. Read sometime about how people couldn't drive their cars due to gas rationing.

Some of the commenters backed me up. I have three tales of rationing: one from my late mother-in-law, one from a friend's mother, and one from the late David Brinkley.

1. I interviewed my mother-in-law in the late 1990s about her life. She told about how little they had during the war when she lived in Brooklyn. I asked her whether rationing of meat, sugar, etc. was a big deal. She said no. Then she explained that it was a big problem for most people around her but that her father ran a grocery store. Not that she would have put it this way, but the artificially low price of meat made the opportunity cost of meat artificially low and so grocers would use it for their families. With a free market price, the price would have been high and grocers would have conserved. But with a low ceiling price, the grocer would see the opportunity cost as the amount of money he could have earned by selling, not that amount of money plus a ration coupon. (Ration coupons were useless to the retailers who collected them from customers.)

2. The mother of a friend was a young girl during World War II. Her family was close to the family of a butcher. As a result, they got more meat than usual because the butcher violated the rules to give them more meat. Her parents told her not to tell anyone because they were worried about legal consequences. That sounds like serious rationing to me. Interestingly, my friend called his mother this morning, after reading yesterday's post, to get this story straight. His mother said, "But don't tell anyone." This, by the way, is the corrosive effect of government blocking peaceful exchange: it makes people think they are criminals and, 65 years later, she's still worried about the consequences.

3. In his memoirs, 11 Presidents, 4 Wars, 22 Political Conventions, 1 Moon Landing, 3 Assassinations, 2,000 Weeks of News and Other Stuff on Television, and 18 Years of Growing up in North Carolina, late ABC newsman David Brinkley told of a romance he had in Nashville during World War II with a woman named Virginia Mansell. But then his employer, UP, decided to move him from Nashville to Charlotte, North Carolina. The romance ended. Why? Here are Brinkley's words:

And in wartime, to get from Charlotte to Nashville to see Virginia was nearly impossible. The new gasoline ration was too small to allow me to drive. Airplane and railroad tickets required a priority.

In short, there was rationing of gasoline, rail tickets, and airline tickets.

No big deal, right? After all, Brinkley married someone else. So read what he wrote next:

So Virginia slipped quietly out of my life, and I never saw her again, but I have never forgotten her for a day.

Rationing, in short, was a big deal.


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CATEGORIES: Price Controls



COMMENTS (10 to date)
lutton writes:

>>her father ran a grocery store

That's exactly my mother-in-law's story. Her father managed a grocery store on Staten Island. But even so, she told stories of how for special occaisions, extended members of the family would all have to acquire some of the ingredients to make a cake, since no one household could get them all due to the rationing. (well, they probably could, but then they wouldn't have the staples for their daily lives) So one household would provide some flour, another sugar, a third butter and so on. There was indeed rationing.

Michael Kolczynski writes:

I remember seeing a Bugs Bunny cartoon which at time I didn't get (I was young). It involved a plane diving towards the ground and stopping in mid-air inches above the ground. Bugs Bunny does his noises with his mouth and says "those darn A-Stickers." Which I later learned were rationing stickers.

Here's another cartoon:

Woody Woodpecker: Ration Bored

This is on youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G6oZH1mKOqo

It was made in 1943.

rmark writes:

No new tires. Dad remembers grandpas 1928 Dodge having caps on top of caps (caps were sections of rubber inner tube placed over patched areas to protect them) to protect the tubes from the worn out tires. Eventually the ration board allowed him to but 2 new tires - and this was the car he used as a mechanic for service calls.

Jeff Hummel writes:

The best historical account of WWII rationing in the U.S. is contained in ch. 7 of Richard R. Lingeman, Don't You Know There's a War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1970). The chapter is entitled "Shortages and Mr. Black." One of Lingeman's many revelations is that the counterfeiting of ration coupons for gas and tires was a great boost for the Mafia, which had been severely hurt by the repeal of Prohibition. The widespread black markets during the war means that David Kennedy might be partly right insofar as the rationing and price controls were non-binding.

Greg Ransom writes:

Are we permitted to question the authority of Harvard professors?


Dr. Awkward writes:

David Henderson, I usually enjoy your posts very much but I found this one profoundly unconvincing. Out of the three anecdotes you found, two of them involve not-very-powerful families who were nevertheless able to circumvent the rationing.

Rationing is, was, and will always be a stupid idea by virtue of the fact that it will always be inferior to the market--which is, in some sense, a rationing mechanism. (Cf. Hayek's "The Use of Knewledge in Society.")

But that doesn't mean that every rationing effort is a "Big Deal." Some of them, while stupid, are a rather small deal. (Think of 1970s gas lines. Frustrating as hell, but not some sort of lasting disaster.)

Tom West writes:

Rationing is, was, and will always be a stupid idea by virtue of the fact that it will always be inferior to the market--which is, in some sense, a rationing mechanism.

Alas, you forget that we're dealing with human beings, not homo economus. The market may be a rationing mechanism, but it is one in which one's need is measured by how many dollars one possesses. If you have no money, by the market's measurement, you have no need.

In a situation where maximal social cohesion in necessary (i.e. one in which you may well be asking someone to risk death on your behalf), you want to make it perfectly clear that society values all its members equally.

Rationing may lose information about need, but it performs the necessary action of making it clear that *all* people's needs are valued - something that is required when people are being asked to make sacrifices on behalf of society.

(and yes, a voucher system might preserve some measure of pricing information across rationed goods, but the informal economy did a pretty good job of that with vastly less paperwork.)

Tom West writes:

Rationing, in short, was a big deal.

What?

If you're trying to say rationing was bad because it denied someone a life they may have preferred, you're setting yourself up for a million anecdotes about how capitalism is bad because the system has denied millions a life they might otherwise have had if they had only had the money...

In short, *everything* is a big deal.

Tracy W writes:

Rationing may lose information about need, but it performs the necessary action of making it clear that *all* people's needs are valued - something that is required when people are being asked to make sacrifices on behalf of society.

But by the anecdotes, it didn't. The grocer's and the butcher's family and friends got more just because of their connections.

Tom West writes:

The grocer's and the butcher's family and friends got more just because of their connections.

Indeed, it's always possible to corrupt the system enough that it undermines any sense of social cohesion that might otherwise be built up.

However, if the scale is small (which it was to my parents who both went through war time rationing), then social cohesion is maintained.

It's the difference between crime existing and having no police department.

One might note that all sides tried to use the fear of inequality as a means to damage enemy moral. Rationing certainly helped make clear that no matter how wealthy you were, we were all suffering together.

Likewise, consider how allowing the wealthy to formally buy their way out of dangerous duty would have impacted morale, even through it would have been economically efficient to insulate those who were sufficiently economically valuable from loss of life.

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