Biden gets to claim a victory after supply chain crisis quietly evaporates

Economy

In October, the accelerating U.S. economy ran up against corporate supply chain problems as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shredded "just-in-time" manufacturing pipelines. Closed factories, shortages of components, and shortages of labor have been features of the pandemic since the beginning—the most famous example in the United States probably being a run on toilet paper in the first months of the pandemic as offices closed. Paper manufacturers were caught flatfooted with warehouses of "office-quality" stuff that nobody who loved their family would dare buy.

The new supply chain problems were more intricate, with a lack of individual electronic components shuttering car manufacturing lines, a lack of spice-sized glass bottles, and similar headaches, but the biggest problem wasn't that the products couldn't be made. It was that Americans began to buy so much that American ports couldn't handle the massive surge of traffic.

Republicans and the political press were outright giddy at the prospect of being able to hammer the not-Trump president over pandemic-caused chaos, but you'll notice that something happened between then and now. Or specifically, something didn't happen between then and now: The predicted crisis of bare store shelves and wailing giftless children didn't happen. The fears, as the New York Times just put it, "turned out to be wrong."

Well, whoops. That's a bit awkward. Yes, even as Americans are so inundated with stories of supply problems, inflation, and hiring problems that consumer confidence polling is down in the dumps, the actual U.S. economy has been roaring. Employment is up, unemployment is down, and a 7% spike in economic output means that American ports are handling about 20% more than they did in pre-pandemic 2019. It's an economic boom, even though the pandemic is not only still with us, but likely to produce new deaths among the unvaccinated that may top even last winter's surge.

So what's going on here? Where'd the supply chain crisis go?

The short answer is that it's being dealt with, which is precisely what governments are supposed to do. Rather than announcing that somebody's son-in-law has now been put in charge of it or having a spokescreature bellow that the ports are only crowded because it is a conspiracy by crane operators who hate our freedoms, the Biden administration and the agencies they oversee sought to address the actual problems to be fixed. The problem was that Americans began to purchase so much more stuff than corporate planners expected, along with an easing of some previous supply chain snarls, that the nation's ports (1) couldn't offload the containers fast enough, (2) didn't have anywhere to put those containers if they did, and (3) didn't have enough willing truck drivers to cart it all off.

All of those are long-term, systemic problems that have arisen from our national inability to (say it with me) modernize our infrastructure and reform our labor laws to help solve such problems. But they could be ameliorated by federal, state, and port action, so that's what happened. The feds prodded west coast ports to move to round-the-clock operations. Local regulators gave emergency exemptions allowing container cargo to be stacked higher in offsite lots, freeing up space—at the temporary expense of spoiling a few harbor views for the neighbors, but if that's the worst your family fares in a national crisis you probably don't dare complain much. The threat of steep, per-day fines for shippers who left containers parked at the port spurred businesses to pick up their products faster even if it meant extra work needed to be done to find drivers and space, allowing new containers to be brought ashore faster.

And experts gave Americans sufficient warning: Experts gave Americans warning: Do your holiday shopping early this year, so you don't contribute to a last-minute crush. That's what Americans did, says the Times. Reopening stores mean more shoppers have been buying in person rather than relying on mail delivery, which in turn has eased holiday congestion for both the U.S. Postal Service and its competitors. We're still in, ahem, a deadly worldwide pandemic that everybody needs to be paying attention to rather than pretending all of this is back to normal—but a lot of moving parts were oiled up to make sure we got to a passable approximation of normal.

Biden was even willing to brag a bit about it today when meeting business leaders. "The much-predicted crisis didn't occur. Packages are moving, gifts are being delivered, shelves are not empty."

What's important to remember, and don't worry because there's not a chance in hell the press is going to take Biden's boast lying down and some outlets are already framing the administration's seasonal win in terms as negative as can be mustered, is that we are in a pandemic, world factories continue to be slammed by that most irritating of all business complications, mass worker deaths, and our infrastructure problems won't go away after everybody's holiday gifts are delivered. The United States still needs a more robust infrastructure strategy than the current version, which can be best described as build another highway lane and let God sort it out.

A great deal of our transportation and delivery woes are due to labor exploitation practices that make delivering those products a more terrible job than most people are willing to put up with. Another large chunk is because corporate supply chains are so very long and complex, as the largest companies outsource their most vital components to contractors in whatever nations are themselves most willing to exploit their laborers, that a single Texas cold snap, South Asian storm, or even one damn boat stuck sideways in a major shipping canal can bring the whole manufacturing process to a standstill for lack of a Plan B.

A more ambitious infrastructure plan that seeks to truly modernize our most vital national concerns is essential. Republicans are not going to do that, because the competing Republican plan proposes that all of that infrastructure be sold off, upon which corporate ambition will miraculously solve all of it. But Democrats could, if they could gain the support of a handful of preening self-absorbed jackasses. At some point. Eventually.

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