President Standfast Asset Management
Late in life, as he sank deeper into insanity and fell in love with a pigeon, Nikola Tesla developed an unhealthy obsession with the numbers 3, 6 and 9. He would, for instance, not enter a building until he had walked three times around the block. His fetish for those three numbers came to rule his life. He could not eat unless he had 18 folded napkins. He insisted that hotel maids give him 18 fresh towels each day. When they asked him why, he just stared at them blankly.
Which begs the question, why 18? Perhaps it is because 18 is the least common multiplier of the three or because the numbers 3, 6, & 9 add up to 18? Or maybe both. People do strange things, often, for strange reasons. Think about the toilet paper.
The recent hoarding of toilet paper and other things is an example of mass hysteria. It seems as if the entire country has descended upon the grocery shelves like a plague of locusts. The biblical overtones are not missed by “end-timers.” In contrast, Tesla’s mania was unique to himself. This is not the first-time humankind has hoarded items both mundane and precious. In the 1600s, people all over Europe went crazy for Tulip Bulbs. At the height of Tulip Mania, a single bulb became as dear as a house.
The current shortages at the grocery stores reminds me of stories of rationing during World War II. Lots of things were rationed: rubber, coffee, silk, tin, sugar and gasoline. Some of these items were already in short supply from hoarding by a panicked public. Right after Pearl Harbor there was a tremendous run on flashlights and batteries, for instance. The lowest level of gasoline rationing provided a coupon for three gallons a week. The highest level of coupon allowed the holder to buy unlimited amounts of gasoline. There was a public outcry when Congress voted themselves the unlimited coupons.
In the late 70s gas became dear again. People lined up around the block to fill their cars. In some places you could only get gasoline, if they had any, on alternate days of the week depending on whether you had an odd or even numbered license plate. People often behaved badly in the lines. We see some people today behaving badly. Quarantine fever makes us do strange things, often, for strange reasons. History says we come through this, but we do come not through it unchanged. One of the hopes, of course, is that we come out of this battle more united.
When you look at climatic events in the history of our Nation, they always have a lasting effect. The Great Depression, World War II, the Great Recession; all of these events had a profound effect on the way we lived and what we valued. The Great Depression haunted us for decades. I remember my grandmother reusing tinfoil and wondering why. Those events changed our culture in ways that may have seemed unimaginable a few years before. They also become something we shared, a common disaster overcome, again much like World War II or the gas crisis.
During the gas crisis of the late 1970s, there was rampant inflation. Mortgage rates went up to 15%. For years after that event and to this day, American’s panic at the word inflation. It was a painful time. The Covid-19 Virus is also a painful event. It will change us. It will change the way we eat, shop, work, and play for years to come. Years from now, our children will tell their children about the Coronavirus quarantine. Hopefully, it will also unite us as we move forward bravely into the uncertain future.
Scott A. Grant is a local author and historian and frequent contributor to the Recorder. By day, he is President of Standfast Asset Management.