Nov 5, 2021

"There will be tears."

Photo: Corey Seeman / Flickr
Photo: Corey Seeman / Flickr

A global supply chain crisis could soon become a global catastrophe.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.” Today is a special Friday edition.

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In the early days of the pandemic, I remember when it was impossible to find toilet paper or Lysol wipes. When groceries would take days or weeks to show up, and the most basic stuff I was accustomed to ordering off Amazon — whether it was a computer charger or a new toothbrush — seemed suddenly more expensive or in low supply.

At the time, those early supply chain shocks seemed like rock bottom. They seemed like the result of this once-in-a-lifetime pandemic where everyone was sent home, like a light switch being turned off, and this tidal wave of unintended consequences worked out from the center, creating all sorts of bizarre and surprising issues.

Looking back now, though, it becomes clear that those shortages were not rock bottom. They were a warning. A warning about how fragile the systems are that we rely on to buy anything from canned corn to a new pair of sneakers or, perhaps, necessities like medicine and personal protective equipment. In recent months, the warning most of us probably missed has turned into a five-alarm fire. And over the last few weeks, it’s become increasingly unclear who has a fire hose — or if one exists at all.

I am not an alarmist. I tend to pride myself on this fact. Every problem has a solution, most of the news is sensationalist, partisan garbage, and we all tend to overreact to issues that should take up a fraction of the oxygen that they do.

But the more I read about this, the more I learn, the more I become increasingly fascinated with — and horrified by — the supply chain crisis that is roiling the global economy right now. As my own curiosity has risen, so too have the questions from readers, to the point that I now receive daily emails asking me to cover this issue.

I’m not an expert. In fact, aside from some complex tax law, I’d say this issue is probably the most outside my expertise of any that I’ve written about recently. But what I do have is the benefit of time and research skills, the fact that looking into things like this is my job, and that I’ve gotten to commit hours a day for weeks on end learning about what I truly believe could become the most consequential story of this year or 2022. I’ve been able to consult experts and read their assessments, and will now try to clarify them for my own audience in a way that captures both the simplicity and the gravity of this situation.

In this case, I’ll confess from the start that covering this issue has not left me optimistic. It has left me anxious, both about what is happening right under our feet right now and about how much worse it might get in the coming weeks.

In case you haven’t noticed, America is running out of everything.

There are two stories being told about this phenomenon. The first story is simple; the second one is far more complex. No matter which story you subscribe to, there’s a decent chance what happens over the next few months will be something kids learn about in their history books 20 years from now. Whether that story will be one of a logistical triumph or one of a global crisis is still not clear.