Bummer

IN ANXIOUS times, political leaders try to assuage fears. So it was this week when William Lai, Taiwan’s prime minister, appealed for calm after a run on that most essential of goods, toilet paper. Reports of looming price increases had started the panic. When local television and newspapers featured stories about people stocking up, even more rushed to the shops to follow suit. Supermarket shelves were stripped bare; tissue paper and kitchen towels were also snapped up. As the frenzy spread, Mr Lai assured the country that supplies would be more than sufficient to meet needs.

The mess began on February 23rd when Taiwanese retailers, including several supermarket chains, said that toilet-paper producers would increase prices by as much as 30% in mid-March because the cost of raw pulp had gone up. The announcements aroused suspicions of collusion. On February 27th the Fair Trade Commission met with three toilet-paper suppliers and five retailers to look into allegations of price-gouging. Mr Lai also asked a task-force to investigate whether retailers had hoarded supplies.

For many observers, though, the bigger question is why Taiwanese care so much about the cost of toilet paper. Taiwan ranks 34th in the world in income per person, richer than Portugal or Greece. But wages have stagnated in recent years, making people more sensitive to the prices of staples. The habit of preparing for typhoons has also sharpened the impulse to stockpile. Loading up on a commodity such as toilet paper—non-perishable and relatively compact—is easy.

The peculiarities of Taiwan’s paper industry are also a factor. Rising pulp prices are a global phenomenon, but affect Taiwan more than most rich countries because local toilet-paper producers use barely any recycled content. If pulp prices stay high, that may change.

The toilet-paper debacle adds to the challenges for Tsai Ing-wen, the president, whose approval rating has fallen sharply since she took office in 2016. The Kuomintang, the main opposition party, says that if Ms Tsai cannot manage something as trivial as toilet paper, she cannot be trusted on bigger problems. She, naturally, rejects this smear.