Created By: mdulwich on November 24, 2011 Last Edited By: Arivne on March 13, 2016

Shortage Economy

A society plagued by chronic shortages of everyday goods.

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Trope
At any given moment there was some necessary article which the Party shops were unable to supply. Sometimes it was buttons, sometimes it was darning wool, sometimes it was shoelaces; at present it was razor blades.

A country where everything is in short supply and acquiring even basic goods can be a struggle. Expect rationing and constant queues, with no guarantee that there will be anything left when it comes to your turn. What is available will tend to be of low quality. Frequently leads to a Black Market.

Often part of a Crapsack World. A major exception would be stories taking place during wartime, especially wartime Britain, where there's a very good reason why things are in short supply. Here, people are likely to muddle through and make-do-and-mend. After all, there is a war on.

The term was coined by Hungarian economist János Kornai to describe the inefficient command economies of the Eastern Bloc.

Note that a shortage economy generally doesn’t mean famine, just an awful lot of inconvenience and chronic low living standards.

Also note this does not tend to include After the End scenarios, since you probably wouldn't expect a functioning economy at all - let alone an efficient one.


Examples:

Comics
  • Seeing his childhood friend in a food queue is what ultimately leads Superman to become leader of the USSR in Superman: Red Son.
  • Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is a particularly anvilicious example, suggesting that people were being turned away in food queues for not being good Communists, while fake factories were built to make foreign visitors think that the economy was doing well.

Film
  • Moscow on the Hudson: in an early scene in Russia, when Robin Williams' character comes home from a day of rehearsal he finds a long line for something. He doesn't even know what they're selling at the other end but he queues up anyway. Turns out it's shoes; he gets a pair even though they're the wrong size. Another time he comes home with a big score: several rolls of toilet paper.
    • Truth in Television as people really did end up buying things they had no use for just because it was all that was available. It was better than nothing and whatever you had could always be traded away later.
  • Brazil is this. Even fancy restaurants only serve a kind gruel. But you get to look at pretty pictures of real good food.

Jokes
  • A staple of East European humour during the Cold War. An example: a man goes into a shop and asks for a loaf of bread. The shopkeeper replies: “Sorry, this is the butcher’s so we don’t have any meat here. It’s next door that doesn’t have any bread”.

Literature
  • A Minor Apocalypse, by Tadeusz Konwicki, is set in Warsaw under the Communists. At one point the narrator sees a display written with sausages in a butcher’s window proclaiming the ‘building of socialism’. On closer inspection the sausages are all fake.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four. Shortages are deliberately created to keep the population worn down, maintained both by a heavy-handed, extremely centralised regime and a permanent state of war.
  • Tom Clancy's depictions of the Soviet Union in his Jack Ryan books often follow this model. For everyone but the elite, finding descent quality goods can be a real problem. In The Hunt for Red October, Jack Ryan tells a Defector from Commie Land that the thing that Soviets find most suprising about America is the size and abundance of the grocery stores.
  • This is alluded to in Phoenix And Ashes — most characters are affected by wartime rationing, but Alison has black market connections for meat and sugar.

Live-Action TV
  • Crops up a lot in Dad's Army, seeing as the whole series is set on The Home Front. Especially since Corporal Jones is a butcher, and commonly uses his control over the meat supply as a carrot and stick. Private Walker’s Black Market activities come up a lot too. One episode had the characters trying to outbid each other in an auction to with a prized commodity: an orange.

Tabletop Games
  • Kolejka (‘Queue’) is a Polish board game which aims to simulate problems getting hold of goods during the 1980s. Ironically, demand for the game was so high that getting hold of a copy proved very difficult.
  • Paranoia. Shortages of consumer goods are a standard part of Alpha Complex life. Somewhat made up for by the black market efforts of the Free Enterprise secret society.

Video Games
  • Possibly an example: in Hearts of Iron public dissent will increase if you aren’t producing enough consumer goods, and demand will decrease while you’re at war.
  • On the Megaman Zero series there is Neo Arcadia, one of the last habitable places on Earth, wich is also a Mega City, after a while there was Starting to be an Energy Shortage, plartly caused by the city massive population, and partly because part of it was being used to keep the dark elf sealed, also using X's Original Body, to combat this Copy X decided to Give Priority to the Human needs those of the Reploids and declaring many of them mavericks so he could "Retire" them. this led to many reploids to creat ressitance groups, wich in return led Neo Arcadia to More Ressources on it's army(and therefore, increase even more the energy Shortage for the rest of the population), how ever Ciel was working on an alternate source of energy, and by the time of the ZX Series it seems like the problem it was finally resolved considering the fact that Ciel created Copy X on the first place, she kind had to made it to compensate for all the problems she made, right?

Western Animation
  • Warner Brothers cartoons made during World War II sometimes mentioned rationing in the United States. One often-used one was gasoline rationing, indicated by the cards that were displayed on cars to show how much gasoline could be bought for them.
  • A number of WWII Era Disney shorts mention various shortages.

Real Life
  • Just about all Eastern Bloc states experienced this, although with varying degrees of severity.
    • Economic problems in the USSR were severely exacerbated by the war, especially in areas that were cut off such as Leningrad.
  • North Korea is completely reliant on foreign aid to feed its population. Ironically, the official state ideology, Juche, means 'self-reliance'.
  • During the period of rationing in Britain, The Times famously received a letter complaining about the amount of bread that was used as filler in sausages. The author claimed that they weren’t sure whether to put mustard or marmalade on them.
  • Happens temporarily before severe windstorms or blizzards, when regional supplies of fuel, flashlight batteries, or staple foods such as bread are rapidly bought out by people stocking up. In the aftermath, perishables are often hard to find because stores that lose electricity have to throw out spoiled meat and dairy en masse.


Community Feedback Replies: 28
  • November 25, 2011
    Arivne
    Commie Land

    Tabletop Games
    • Paranoia. Shortages of consumer goods are a standard part of Alpha Complex life. Somewhat made up for by the black market efforts of the Free Enterprise secret society.

    Home Front

    Western Animation
    • Warner Brothers cartoons made during World War II sometimes mentioned rationing in the United States. One often-used one was gasoline rationing, indicated by the cards that were displayed on cars to show how much gasoline could be bought for them.
  • November 25, 2011
    randomsurfer
    Moscow On The Hudson: in an early scene in Russia, when Robin Williams' character comes home from a day of rehearsal he finds a long line for something. He doesn't even know what they're selling at the other end but he queues up anyway. Turns out it's shoes; he gets a pair even though they're the wrong size. Another time he comes home with a big score: several rolls of toilet paper.
  • November 25, 2011
    mdulwich
    Although most of the examples are Truth In Television, the Moscow On The Hudson one is particularly noteworthy as people really did end up buying things they had no use for just because it was all that was available. It was better than nothing and whatever you had could always be traded away later.
  • November 26, 2011
    Prfnoff
    No soft split, please. Nineteen Eighty Four fits both categories, really.
  • November 26, 2011
    mdulwich
    Added the new examples. Nineteen Eighty Four is now in both categories, but I'll get rid of the split if more people think it's unnecessary.
  • February 20, 2012
    Catbert
    If I might make a suggestion, your first sentences should be a concise, defining statements about what this trope is.

    Leave the origin of the term for the end.
  • February 20, 2012
    mdulwich
    ^ Thanks! Hope this improves things.
  • February 20, 2012
    Catbert
    • Tom Clancy's depictions of the Soviet Union in his Jack Ryan books often follow this model. For everyone but the elite, finding descent quality goods can be a real problem. In The Hunt For Red October, Jack Ryan tells a Defector From Commie Land that the thing that Soviets find most suprising about America is the size and abundance of the grocery stores.
  • February 20, 2012
    Catbert
    I fixed your formatting a bit. I'm dubious of the value of splitting examples into "Type Categories" at this point. I think you would be better served by merging them and adding more context to the example so people can see how it fits and why it fits.

    Also "is a particularly anvilicious example" tells me nothing, and smacks of Word Cruft. Expand on what happens in the story rather then giving commentary on whether you think the story is anvilicious.
  • February 20, 2012
    Damr1990
    • On the Megaman Zero series, there is the city of Neo Arcadia, one of the last habitable places on Earth, wich is also a Mega City, after a while there was Starting to be an Energy Shortage, plartialy caused by the city massive population, and partly because part of it was being used to keep the dark elf sealed, also using X's Original Body, and in the third game, to fund Weil's secret operations, to combat this Copy X decided to Give Priority to the Human needs over those of the Reploids and declaring many of them mavericks so he could "Retire" them indicriminately. this led to many reploids to create ressitance groups, wich in return led Neo Arcadia to spend even more ressources on it's army(and therefore, increased even more the energy shortage for the rest of the population), however Ciel was working on an alternate source of energy, and by the time of the ZX Series it seems like the problem it was finally resolved considering the fact that Ciel created Copy X on the first place, she kind of had to make it to compensate for all the problems she made in the first place, right?
  • February 21, 2012
    Frank75
    Brazil is this. Even fancy restaurants only serve a kind gruel. But you get to look at pretty pictures of real good food.
  • February 21, 2012
    Antigone3
    This is alluded to in Phoenix And Ashes -- most characters are affected by wartime rationing, but Alison has black market connections for meat and sugar.
  • November 4, 2012
    SharleeD
    Possibly Too Soon for the U.S. East Coast, but...

    • Happens temporarily in Real Life before severe windstorms or blizzards, when regional supplies of fuel, flashlight batteries, or staple foods such as bread are rapidly bought out by people stocking up. In the aftermath, perishables are often hard to find because stores that lose electricity have to throw out spoiled meat and dairy en masse.
  • May 19, 2014
    Folamh3
    • Atlas Shrugged is like this from the outset. As more and more industrialists depart for Galt's Gulch the situation worsens dramatically.
  • May 19, 2014
    ShanghaiSlave
    Shortage Economy? doesn't sound right. maybe Economic Shortage?
  • May 19, 2014
    CrimsonZephyr
    ^ Eh, the Shortage Economy defines the trope quite well: an economy that has a chronic dearth of basic goods and services due to an inefficient structure or the rigors of a crisis situation. Economic Shortage doesn't really mean anything; every shortage of basic goods and services is an economic shortage.
  • May 19, 2014
    ShanghaiSlave
    Damn, I should have done my Bloody Research.

    Basically, you're right. Shortage Economy(shortage is inherent in the system) is different from Economic Shortage(shortage is there because there is too much demand). well duck semantics I'm a cow.

    Maybe mention that this is an actual term for those who might note that it sounds weird to them. I can't be the only one.
  • May 19, 2014
    ShanghaiSlave
    Also, some of your examples seem to specifically involve rationing queues. That makes this trope sound more like Rationing Equals Famine. Maybe a Soft Split (or pure split) is in order? that's more like a visual shorthand.

    Shortage Economy should be about examples actually about shortages like your Literature examples.
  • May 19, 2014
    CrimsonZephyr
    "The term was coined by Hungarian economist János Kornai to describe the inefficient command economies of the Eastern Bloc."

    This has already been done for you.
  • May 19, 2014
    zarpaulus
    Surprised this one isn't on the list yet:

    • In Nineteen Eighty Four there are constant shortages of just about everything, but the Party rewrites the records so that it looks like they're producing more than expected. Like when four hundred boots are produced an erroneous order for five hundred is corrected to read three hundred.
  • June 29, 2014
    jgoulden
    Literature/Dune: After Baron Harkonnen defeats the Atreides with old-fashioned artillery fire he orders the weapons recycled: "We need the metal."
  • June 29, 2014
    Dalillama
    Literature:
    • In Destiny's Road by Larry Niven, 'speckles' (iodine powder) is an essential ingredient of food, and can only be had from itinerant traders. Those who can't afford it risk children with severe mental disabilities ("Speckles-shy").
  • June 29, 2014
    zarpaulus
    Okay, what is that second bullet point under Literature supposed to be?

    Webcomics
    • In A Miracle Of Science the Lunar Republic's planned economy always produces too much of some things and too little of others. Like everyone has sunglasses but no new shoes. The villain exploits this by buying Lunar trash cheap to feed his nanofabricator.
  • June 30, 2014
    Arivne
    • Literature/: Shortages are deliberately created to keep the population worn down, maintained both by a heavy-handed, extremely centralised regime and a permanent state of war.

    ^ "Okay, what is that second bullet point under Literature supposed to be?"

    According to the Change History it was originally Nineteen Eighty Four. Changing back.
  • July 8, 2014
    oneuglybunny
    Film
    • Shortages are routine, and getting worse for the subterranean residents of The City Of Ember, which was built to house them for two hundred years, enough to weather the cataclysm above ground. The city's planners stockpiled plenty of staples for everyone. However, the corrupt and greedy Mayor of Ember creates the shortages by hording goodies for himself and his cronies.
  • January 9, 2015
    eroock
    Related to Scavenger World.
  • March 13, 2016
    DAN004
    Bump, perhaps
  • March 13, 2016
    Chabal2
    A recurring problem in Pharaoh that goes hand-in-hand with Critical Staffing Shortage. Housing levels depend on receiving regular shipments of various goods (food, pottery, beer, etc.), and the disruption of industries or trade causes the housing to devolve, meaning your city has less workers to produce goods, meaning there's less available, and so on until total collapse. Many levels start the player with a major disadvantage by not providing the raw resources that can be refined into finished products, forcing them to depend on trade. To add insult to injury, sometimes the problem is that the goods are available but are stored in the wrong building, and so are not distributed properly (granaries hold food for distribution and storage yards for trade, but food for requests and such can only come from yards).
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