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Oh, So Everyone’s a Supply Chain Expert Now

Americans sure think they understand a system of global capital they’d always taken for granted

As I get older, I think about the parts of my experience that already feel historical. Using landline phones and memorizing numbers. Taping songs off the radio. A favorite TV show that you had to rush home for. Life without a computer, let alone internet access. But this year, I’ve realized one of the biggest cultural shifts in my time is something I barely thought about before: Since the turn of the millennium, we have come to expect the near-instantaneous delivery of any product we care to name. 

This revolution in consumer convenience — ushered in by the rise of Amazon Prime, which debuted in 2005 and drilled the need for lightning-fast shipping into the mind of every American — is exacting a severe environmental toll. It has also obliterated the notion that we can’t always get what we want right away. Our on-demand lifestyle is now at odds with a supply chain crisis brought about by 19 months of a global pandemic. In fact, the problems of labor and material shortages, transport slowdowns and expensive trade have been worsened by demand from buyers in the West, “who saved enormous amounts of money during 2020 and early 2021 and are now spending it,” per Bloomberg’s analysis. The result is inflation and long delays.

Meanwhile, everyone is an expert on the supply chains they never considered until now. Take Ben Dreyfuss here (son of actor Richard Dreyfuss), who not only seems surprised that Amazon packages take a longer time to reach him in the mountains of Idaho than they did in New York, but is quick to chalk it up to “societal failure.” Really? Are you sure this belief that we’re owed delivery of any legal item we can afford “in a reasonable amount of time” is not, in itself, unreasonable? 

Just two decades ago, it would have been unthinkable. It’s true we’re seeing the vulnerabilities of globalized market capitalism, but waiting a week for your massage pillow isn’t quite the same as civilizational collapse. If anything, I’d say it’s still a ridiculous luxury.

Or check out the Republicans fearmongering about “empty shelves” at stores to score points against Democrats and President Biden. Apparently they’d like you to believe these disruptions only began once Trump left office, which would require overlooking, among other events, the 2020 run on toilet paper, and economists’ prior acknowledgement of weaknesses in the system. It’s equally important to assume that Biden’s policies are to blame, as though he unilaterally chose to make the U.S. dependent on foreign imports. He won’t, by the way, run out of ice cream, which we make plenty of in this country — we’re talking about Ben & Jerry’s scaling down their speciality flavors for a while, not some kind of dairy rapture. And where Christmas gifts are concerned, parents have been duking it out over toys in high demand and short supply since the Cabbage Patch riots of 1983. Sorry, but I’m not too bothered that you may not have the chance to steamroll other shoppers for a cheap stereo on Black Friday.    

Look, am I going to pretend I’m not annoyed that my closest supermarket hasn’t stocked the pickles I prefer since April 2020? No. However, I can also accept that this is the not-so-surprising outcome of a capitalist infrastructure that sucks in the first place, and which we mostly take for granted while understanding little. Taking a picture of the most expensive gallon of milk you can find at Safeway doesn’t illuminate the issue, and saying “no one wants to work” is an obvious dodge from the reality: People do want to work, but a job is only worthwhile if it pays a livable wage, and many industries have stubbornly refused to raise compensation (or take basic precautions to protect laborers’ health during a pandemic).

Guess what. Even someone directly involved in maintaining a supply chain can’t figure it out.

Since the earliest days of COVID-19, all we’ve heard about is the “unprecedented” situation and “new normal” we’ve had to navigate. But the way some people are going off on the state of commerce lately — among the more predictable and precedented results of the outbreak — you’d think it was both a bigger surprise and worse disaster than the 721,000 deaths and counting here in the U.S. This twisted logic has Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene saying we need to ban employer vaccine mandates so that unvaccinated workers can help with shipping backlogs, a “solution” that would, of course, lead to more infections and further breakdowns. 

It’s bad enough that millions of Americans have appointed themselves epidemiologists, and maybe I’m asking too much, but: sure would be nice if we didn’t play out the same dynamic just because Daddy Bezos is late with your very important purchase. Pretend it’s the 1990s. We got through them once already.