Cabbages and Kings

When I came across the NYTimes article about the Colvin brothers in Tennessee and then subsequent articles about them being forced to donate their thousands of bottles of hand sanitizer and other supplies following the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office investigation, my first thought was They’re just doing what we’ve taught them to do.

We live in a capitalist economy, purported by many to be a “free market”, and in the behavior of our wealthiest population, we are told the story over and over about how we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and become rich, too. It’s a tantalizing dream, one that grips us all. 

I don’t fault the Colvin brothers and others like them who had the foresight to recognize that this pandemic was going to get out of hand rapidly in America and that they could make some money. Also, having lived in northeast Tennessee myself, I recognize that sometimes if you want to make money, you have to take your goods elsewhere. 

Business Insider reported Tennessee to be among the states with the lowest income nationally and with a poverty rate of 13.8%  from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 data. Many states in the South and Appalachians show similar – or worse – numbers. Also according to a 2017 report, Tennessee and many of its surrounding states have the unhealthiest populations of the U.S. It’s prudent we don’t take for granted that while supply may be greater in rural areas with fewer people, residents of these places are also more likely to be unable to purchase supplies online where prices are responsive to wealthier markets and increased demand. They are also more likely to be high risk in any health crisis. 

Ignoring for a moment that it is illegal to price gouge limited supplies in a state of emergency, let’s say the plans of Colvin brothers everywhere go forward and they can price their goods from $8 to $70 dollars, as they are reported to have actually accomplished on Amazon before the price gouging crack down. 

People looking at the situation from cities and suburbs throughout the country might think that if the population is smaller in rural areas, they don’t need much supply and therefore moving it elsewhere is not a problem in and of itself. The photos that friends, family, and strangers are sharing from Tennessee tell a different story. The shelves are empty, except perhaps for some unsweet tea and arugula. So can they hop online and buy hand sanitizer at triple the normal cost? When they are living paycheck to paycheck, swamped in medical bills, and getting laid off, can they compete with people who have as a baseline greater resources and healthcare? No. 

If hoarding and re-selling entrepreneurs could keep their price gouging within reason, within basic consideration for their neighbors and first responders and nurses and so on, I don’t mind them making a profit on a global crisis. After all, politicians, various multi-million dollar industries, and the super rich have been doing it for a long, long time. Who do you think the Colvins of the U.S. learned from?

A private Senate briefing from senior government scientists on the coronavirus occured on January 24th, which Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) attended. Between then and mid-February, before the coronavirus became a national emergency in the U.S., Burr and Loeffler sold millions of dollars worth of stock. In response to accusations of abusing her position, Loeffler claimed on Twitter that “Investment decisions are made by multiple third-party advisors without my or my husband’s knowledge or involvement.” Perhaps it would have been helpful if her third-party advisors had a private briefing with her about the coronavirus instead of Senate Health Committee officials, the CDC director, and the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases because maybe then she wouldn’t have spent weeks telling Americans not to take this threat seriously. 

Historians like to say, “Follow the money.” The money says Loeffler bought between $100,000 and $250,000 in Citrix, a tech company with teleworking software whose share price has risen since the stock market took a plunge following the coronavirus outbreak. The money says Burr warned the members of a club for businesses and organizations in North Carolina called Tar Heel Circle, whose members pay up to $10,000 for such information, with far more severity and directness than he did the public. So even if we believe that these politicians did not illegally use non-public information obtained through the privileges of their office to sell millions of dollars worth of coronavirus-related stock, they have been nevertheless in a position to profit from a global crisis. They have held this position while telling the public they claim to represent and serve that we are not threatened by this virus. The money tells us they are speaking for themselves, not us. 

I have a difficult time begrudging the behaviors of average Americans when they simply reflect what we have deemed “normal” for the most privileged among us. A sufficiently clever idea that concentrates wealth pretty much instantly makes you a successful, even celebrated American. And while the Colvin brothers and politicians are being publicly criticized across the internet, for our wealthy elite, more than likely that will be the extent of it. When we tell the stories of our wealth, no one says, “I cheated. I lied. I withheld. I abused. I took advantage of their desperation.” That is not the story Americans like to hear or tell about success.  

It is often a survival technique of the disadvantaged to look at models of power for replication. The Colvins specifically may not be disadvantaged, but they certainly are compared to Loeffler and Burr. I would venture to say everyone reading this is more of a Colvin. Price gougers among us are easy to access and therefore palatable targets for our anger. Will Burr resign? Will this hurt Loeffler’s election campaign in November? Will either of them donate any of the profits they’ve gained from our global pandemic? What are they doing to ensure supplies get to where they are needed most? If we are crabs in a bucket, it’s because our society has been designed to foster this mentality. We can choose differently. We can create a new narrative.