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Real Solutions for Supply Chain Problems

— October 25, 2021

Knockdown effects from the pandemic have caused supply chain problems across the globe. Solutions exist; we just have to practice the freedom we preach.

Whether you’ve been out shopping or only perusing memes on the internet lately, you’ve probably noticed supply chain problems. It’s hard to get Dunkin’ Donuts in Baltimore, school lunches in Oklahoma, new cars in Ireland, gasoline in Britain and coal in India. While some less-than-truthful pundits are taking advantage of the situation to score cheap political points, the truth, as usual, is far more complex and not nearly so fun and easy when it comes to figuring out where to lay the blame. So let’s take a look at how we got here, and what we can do to mitigate the problem both now and in an uncertain future.

The first-level reason for the global supply chain problems is the pandemic. Way back in early 2020, when the coronavirus broke out and spread like wildfire through industrial centers, sick workers and lockdowns caused production to fall off a cliff. Because not nearly so many goods were coming out of the world’s factories, shipping companies cut back their scheduled pickups. Demand also fell, but only for some items, like restaurant meals and travel. Instead, people bought chairs and desks for new home offices, items to make their homes more cozy during quarantine, and kitchenware for all that cooking. The abrupt changes to demand wrought chaos on an already broken system, and “hilarity” ensued.

As soon as China was back up on its feet, they worked to meet the world’s demand for PPE. Container ships laden with N95 masks and hospital gear traversed the oceans, bringing lifesaving goods even to places that don’t send many export items back to China, like west Africa. Shippers depend upon two-way trade to make their livings, and there’s no profit in ferrying empty boxes. Stranded in odd corners of the world, container ships weren’t immediately available to carry other goods along the usual routes. Suddenly, shipping was really expensive, which added to the supply chain problems.

When people started pretending as if we didn’t have an ongoing pandemic, opening businesses and going shopping again, that demand surge was another shock to the still-reeling system. Those ships, which used to arrive on reasonable schedules, now met bottlenecks in port, having to wait days or weeks to unload. That, in turn, meant trucking companies and independent drivers had a glut of work all at once, just after the pandemic inspired a lot of America’s aging truckers to retire, and low wages and poor working conditions drove others to find new careers. While Biden’s plan is to keep the Port of Los Angeles open 24/7, that would simply move the supply chain problems downstream.

Let’s just be honest. Americans buy a lot of stuff. Some of the apparent supply chain problems aren’t system glitches at all, it’s merely all the other people buying everything, just like when you couldn’t find toilet paper at the store a year and a half ago. We’re a funny people, really. Even as Americans complain about our dependency on imported Chinese goods and the trade deficit, we also act like having every good we could possibly want available at our most whimsical demand is our birthright.

Former President Carter, smiling, wearing a black suit and a dazzling striped tie.
Public domain image of former President Jimmy Carter in 2017. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Institute of Technology via Flickr.

It’s been that way for decades, long enough to forget that we once faced a similar situation, and we had a President who showed us a way out. On July 15th, 1979, in the middle of an energy crisis, with Americans waiting in line to buy gasoline and fistfights breaking out at the pumps, President Jimmy Carter spoke on national television, offering a vision of shared sacrifice and moral restraint. Carter didn’t mince words. He called on our parents and grandparents to define themselves not by all the stuff they could accumulate, but to make sure we took care of each other. “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose,” he said. Americans, then, took heart. Carter’s popularity rose, and everyday people pledged to cut their overconsumption. It’s a strategy that could have worked then, and could still work now.

Of course, that speech also gave Ronald Reagan, Carter’s rival in the 1980 election, just the weapon he needed. “It’s Morning in America,” Reagan’s campaign ads gushed. It was OK to consume, to throw off any moral restraint or ecological awareness that might, back then, have saved the future ahead of us now. Reagan opened the door to the movements that brought us globalization (which is causing a great many supply chain problems lately), sounded the death knell for unions (resulting in the kind of low pay and poor working conditions that are causing truckers, among others, out of the workforce), and paved the way for the same politicians that not only allowed COVID to claim the lives of over 700,000 Americans (and causing many of those supply chain problems) but also to make patently silly claims that President Biden and even “Mayor” Pete Buttigieg are to blame for it.

If only we’d listened to the Peanut Man, eh?

But the truth is, we still can. In the last half century or so, our way of life has become so complex that we’re now experiencing diminishing returns. Once, outsourcing our manufacturing to Asian sweatshops made everything cheaper, if we were willing to accept sweatshop quality (and fewer American jobs). However, “just in time” delivery relied on the same complex chain of factories, ships and trucks that went haywire under the stress of a global pandemic. Such a lack of resilience may have cut costs for businesses, but it’s not a long term solution for a society experiencing increasing chaos.

A better answer for supply chain problems? As Carter called on his fellow Americans to do, consume less. You don’t have to be a pioneer to “use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without.” Shorten those supply chains, because the food in your garden and the goods made in your state don’t have to be shipped from overseas. Follow the example of the Nisqually tribe in Washington State, who are setting up a food sovereignty program that aims to keep their members fed with locally grown vegetables and fish from Nisqually fishermen. Or look to the northeast, where the states of New York, Massachusetts, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Jersey and Pennsylvania joined together to form their own supply chain for PPE after finding masks and gowns difficult to obtain last year.

If you’ve always wanted to become more resilient, this is the perfect time to skill up, relocalize production, form unions and co-ops, and strengthen your community. They can’t take your Christmas away if you don’t need their stuff.

Related: Self-Reliance: A Positive COVID Result


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