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Each week, WFAE's "Morning Edition" hosts get a rundown of the biggest business and development stories from The Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter.

Despite Life Starting to Return To 'Normal' Many Items in Short Supply — Plus, Seinfeld Has Thoughts On Overdue Book Fines

Toilet Paper Shortage
Chris Miller
Remember when no one could find toilet paper? Now, we're having other shortages thanks, in part, to the pandemic.

Remember last year when the coronavirus spurred a run on toilet paper and hand sanitizer? Well, it's a lot easier to find those items now as life returns to what it looked like pre-pandemic. But now other items are in short supply. For more, WFAE's "Morning Edition" co-host Marshall Terry talks to Tony Mecia of the Charlotte Ledger Business Newsletter for our segment BizWorthy.

Marshall Terry: Tony, what sorts of things are we talking about here?

Tony Mecia: Marshall, you'd think that with things returning back to normal and COVID sort of in the rearview mirror, that we wouldn't have these shortages anymore. But they're still sort of popping up all over the place. Lately, we've seen shortages of rental cars, all different kinds of meat, construction materials like lumber, porta potties. There's a whole range of things and a whole range of industries that are now turning out to be in short supply.

Terry: And what's going on here? Is this still pandemic related?

Mecia: The pandemic is a piece of it. It's really a couple of different things. On the supply side, there's been a huge disruption to international supply chains where a lot of manufacturers say they would mine for something in Australia, make something in China, send it to Korea, and then import it here to the United States. Those have gotten a little bit disrupted because of COVID.

Manufacturers also tend to keep very lean inventory. So they don't have huge stockpiles of washing machines, necessarily, that can come to you at a moment's notice.

There's also a number of other factors, economists told us, such as worker shortages, cyberattacks, natural disasters. And all these things kind of feed off of each other to kind of disrupt the supply.

And then aside from that, you also have the demand side where we've seen such huge swings in what people are interested in. You'll remember at the beginning of the pandemic, you had a shortage of toilet paper — not because there was less toilet paper, but because more people were stockpiling toilet paper.

And so now we're starting to see some of those swings move the other direction. Where at the beginning of the pandemic, it was, say, shortages of electronics, yard supplies, home furnishings, home appliances. Now it's kind of swinging the other direction. Restaurants are seeing some shortages of food, of ketchup, chicken wings. There are shortages of flowers because there are a whole bunch more weddings now that have been put off. So it's really a whole bunch of things combining to cause these sporadic but pervasive shortages.

Terry: The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library is doing away with fines for items that are overdue. What's behind that change?

Mecia: Well, yeah, county commissioners approved a budget that includes $600,000 to make up for lost revenue on overdue book fines. So what they're doing, they had 40,000 people, they said, who were unable to check out materials from libraries because they have late fees, essentially.

So they're wiping those away, saying all those people can go ahead and use the library, now. They said disproportionately, it was low-income, people of color who were unable to check things out. So they saw it as an equity issue.

This is actually a trend in library circles. We talked to several different libraries in the area that had done away with fees. And they said actually, surprisingly, they hadn't experienced any problems with people turning in things late or there being longer waiting lists for books. They are still going to charge people after 60 days if you don't return the material. They would consider it lost, and that will be a charge and you'll lose your checkout privileges.

Terry: You know, hearing about this, I'm reminded of that old "Seinfeld" episode where Jerry fails to turn in a book after many years and they sic the library cop, Mr. Bookman, on him.

(Recording of Mr. Bookman): If you think this is about overdue fines and missing books, you better think again. This is about that kid's right to read a book without getting his mind warped. Maybe that turns you on, Seinfeld. Maybe that's how you get your kicks, you and your good-time buddies. I got a flash for you, Joy Boy: Party time is over.

Terry: Now, you said that doing away with late fees was kind of becoming a trend at libraries. Is there any place that has tried this but it hasn't worked out?

Mecia: Not sure about that, Marshall. We talked to three in the area — Columbia, South Carolina, Cabarrus County and Durham. And they said actually it seems to be working out fine so far. Some of them have sort of incomplete data because they put these changes in during COVID when there weren't as many people checking out materials.

Terry: Finally, Tony, you did something interesting this week. You used artificial intelligence to write an entire edition of the newsletter. Why?

Mecia: Well, Marshall, we just wanted to show sort of how far artificial intelligence has come. And actually, you know, it came out, I thought, pretty well. They were definitely readable articles. Some of them had a few quirks in the way it phrased things and some of the facts. It basically drew information from the internet and used that to populate articles.

Billy Graham Library
Billy Graham Library
Billy Graham Library

Now, not everything that you read on the internet is accurate or up-to-date, Marshall. I know that might be a surprise. It did make some errors and had a few funny things. We run a list of things to do in Charlotte and in addition to saying visit the Billy Graham Library, it also said take some time to shop at Northlake Mall, walk through a neighborhood named Olde Towne East — which doesn't exist in Charlotte, it's actually in Columbus, Ohio. And it recommended if you're really looking for something to do, that's a typical Charlotte experience, it recommended going and having dinner at Carrabba's.

Terry: Is this the sort of thing that we're going to see more of in journalism?

Mecia: I think we are going to see more of it. Some news organizations are already using AI. The AP, for example, uses it to write sports stories — you know, just game stories of which team won, how many runs did they score in the ninth inning, that kind of thing. So it is used for sort of lower-level functions like that. But I don't think it's ever ... well, I don't know, but I certainly hope it doesn't replace the higher-level types of tasks that really only the human brain can do.

Terry: Well, you and I both hope that that doesn't happen. So we will leave it there this week. Thanks, Tony.

Mecia: All right. Yeah, no computers coming for your job yet, Marshall.

Terry: I hope not. Thanks, Tony.

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Mecia: Thanks, Marshall.

Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.