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How We Broke the Supply Chain

This article appears in The American Prospect magazine’s February 2022 special issue, “How We Broke the Supply Chain.” Anyone old enough to remember the Cold War is familiar with a scene routinely depicted on U.S. television at the time: the Soviet breadline. Warning Americans about life under communism, these clips showed Russian citizens lingering forlornly outside businesses for hours to obtain basic goods—indelible proof of the inferiority of central planning, and an advertisement for capitalism’s abundance. Breadlines, the Big Book of Capitalism assured us, could not happen in a market economy. Supply would always rise to meet demand, as long as there’s money to be made. Only deviating from free-market fundamentalism—giving everyone health care, for example—could lead to shortages. Otherwise, capitalism has your every desire covered. Yet we have breadlines in America today, or at least just off our coasts. They consist of dozens of ships with billions of dollars of cargo, idling outside the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, the docks through which 40 percent of all U.S. seaborne imports flow. “Ships” barely conveys the scale of these giants, which are more like floating Empire State Buildings, stacked high with multicolored containers filled to the brim with toys and clothes and electronics, produced mostly in Asia. The lines don’t end there, with worn-down physical infrastructure and the lack of a well-compensated, stable labor force impeding cargo from getting unloaded at the yards, transferred to trucks or railcars, stored in warehouses, and transported to shops or mailboxes across America. As a direct result, for the first time in most of our lifetimes (provided we didn’t live in the former Soviet Union), we’re experiencing random shortages. One day you can’t find bicycle parts; the next day it’s luxury watches or L.O.L. dolls; then it’s cream cheese in New York City. You might walk into a Burger King and see a sign that says “Sorry, no french fries with any order. We have no potatoes.” Or the fries will be soggy, because there’s not enough cooking oil. Common lab materials like pipette tips or the special plastic bags used to make vaccines may not be sold at the corner store, but shortages in these items arguably have an even greater impact on our lives in the age of COVID. Even if you missed the shortages, it’s unlikely that you’ve missed the clamor about increased prices. Inflation in the U.S. reached a 39-year high in December, eating into wage gains, straining people’s pocketbooks, and causing existential political headaches for the Biden administration. Prices in Europe, the U.K., and elsewhere are also surging, and will surge for the indefinite future, as companies struggle to rescue goods from the maw of what we all know as the supply chain. You could read hundreds of stories about this phenomenon, about the stress of longshoremen and supply chain managers and government officials, the consequences for consumers and small businesses and retailers, and superficial attempts at explaining why we got here. Many will tell you that the pandemic changed consumption patterns, favoring physical goods over services as barhopping and travel shut down. Some will blame fiscal-relief programs, large deficits, and loose monetary policies for making inflation worse. Nearly all will frame the matter as a momentary kink in the global logistics leviathan, which is bound to work itself out. Anyway, everyone got their Christmas gifts this year, so maybe it was overblown to begin with.

Almost none of these stories will explain how these shortages and price hikes were also brought to life through bad public policy coupled with decades of corporate greed. We spent a half-century allowing business executives and financiers to take control of our supply chains, enabled by leaders in both parties. They all hailed the transformation, cheering the advances of globalization, the efficient network that would free us from want. Motivated by greed and dismissive of the public interest, they didn’t mention that their invention was supremely ill-equipped to handle inevitable supply bottlenecks. And the pandemic exposed this hidden risk, like a domino bringing down a system primed to topple…”

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