WAGON TRAINS AND SUPPLY CHAINS
How America’s supply chains have changed over time! For the worse!
When the 2020 COVID pandemic turned off the lights in all of New York City’s Broadway theatres, our dancer grandson was just about to make his debut in a revival of the popular 1957 Meredith Wilson musical “The Music Man.” It would be nearly two years before the musical’s red-carpet opening and my wife and I could scurry up to New York and watch him perform.
In addition to its signature number, “76 Trombones,” several of the musical’s melodies now randomly pop into my head, and I’ll find myself starting to hum them. The other day the tune that emerged in my consciousness was, “The Wells Fargo Wagon’s Comin’ Down the Street.” But this time there was a reason; I was prompted by the “supply chain disruptions” I’m now frequently learning about in the media and have recently experienced firsthand.
To refresh, the “Wells Fargo Wagon …” tune comes at the end of the musical’s first act and is performed by a chorus of children and adults in their fictitious 1912 town of River City, Iowa. They are all excited over the anticipated arrival of the Wells Fargo wagon containing, they hope deliveries for themselves from a distant supplier, friend or family member. The enthusiasm with which the cast sings the lines conveys the excitement of soon receiving a long-awaited package. Oh, how supply chains have changed over the last century! For the worse!
We’d like to believe that cutting edge technology and modern marketing investments have improved efficiencies in moving stuff from producers to consumers. Technology and investments have made a difference of course, in some ways. Those Wells Fargo Wagons are now replaced by ocean-going container cargo ships and 18-wheeler tractor-trailers delivering goods from across the seas to US maritime ports and then to regional warehouse centers for distribution to consumers. Today, after placing an order, my shipment is tracked using sophisticated computer algorithms to identify supply availabilities and local consumer demand so I don’t suffer in want of anything for very long. Until I do.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown farm-to-market and manufacturer-to-consumer supply chains appeared to be working pretty well. America’s just-in-time delivery network jacked up Americans’ expectations about how promptly their phone or online orders could be delivered and even where shipments were enroute to their door. Personally, I’ve been amazed at how promptly an online order can end up on my front porch. More recently, however, supply chain disruptions are leaving many store shelves empty and many parents wondering how they’re going to meet their families’ expectations for new clothes or video games in time for a birthday or other special event.
What had once been the excitement of anticipation a little more than a century ago, has turned into widespread sullen grumpiness today when things ordered online are delayed for days and weeks or are suddenly reported out of stock. The thrill of anticipation is gone along with the element of mystery and surprise in not knowing when a package would show up. In its place is the sense of pain and disappointment that comes when gratification is even slightly delayed.
It’s worrisome because along with technological advances in marketing, our expectations have ratcheted up to the point that unless things go exactly the way we want and our stuff gets to us within days if not hours of placing our order, we look for someone to blame. Woe to the political party in power when supply chain disruptions set in! “It’s the economy, stupid!” echoes through the halls of Congress after every glitch in the performance we’ve come to expect from well-tuned global and national marketing systems. We consumers fume until we can take out our frustrations on politicians at election time, even though those politicians may have had little or nothing to do with inventory shortages or delivery delays.
The current COVID pandemic has revealed just how vulnerable is our just-in-time American consumer lifestyle. Also revealing is how challenging it is to get our lives back on the road once an event like this pandemic lands us in the ditch. There’s ample reason to believe that our quality of life has not improved all that much when we must account for the vulnerability of today’s supply chains.
Moreover, can we really claim that it is an improvement today what goes on behind the scenes in those drab and often dangerous warehouses where workers reportedly struggle long hours for mediocre wages to meet almost inhuman targets for moving merchandise through these incongruously named “fulfillment centers?” Compare, for example twenty-first century warehouse work drudgery to the nineteenth century freedom and excitement of driving a wagon team of powerful horses across the wide-open western prairies. The freshness of the air. The magnificent scenery. Oh sure, there were occupational hazards from marauding wannabe Butch Cassidy-style stage coach and train robbers. But both of those worries were a bit exaggerated by Hollywood movie makers. Largely, wagon trains and their cargo made their way to purchasers even if delivery times were long and arrival dates a bit unpredictable.
Supply chains also worked well up to a half century ago because our predecessors were willing to live with less and to pay for it if not in advance, then certainly POD – pay on delivery. Not so anymore. Consumer credit and Wall Street investments finance expanded production lines and accumulating inventories to the point that deliveries flow almost seamlessly. Our glutenous lifestyles require it.
But how sustainable? The pandemic has demonstrated that apparently not as much as we’ve come to expect. Increasingly frequent and extreme weather events and disruptive global political and economic turmoil are changing all that. Recurrent supply shortages and inflationary price pressures have introduced greater unpredictability into the delivery systems we have been taking for granted.
The pandemic also reveals that we need to prepare now for future shocks to our marketing systems, even to our lifestyles. We need to recognize that supply chain disruptions of both goods and services are more likely to be recurrent events in our future. It’s something over which we will never have total control. But there’s definitely scope for improvement. And we can prepare.
How? Well, we can take steps to recalibrate our lives. And not simply adjust our expectations to more realistic delivery timelines, but also ease up on our spending and consumption practices to tamp down demand pressures on supply chains. Many steps we can take have a low or zero cost; others are investments for the future which we should make promptly to avoid even greater costs of inaction later.
First, let’s wean ourselves from instant gratification, particularly when that gratification comes from material consumption. I suggest we start incrementally. I’m not proposing anything dramatic as, say, a crash starvation diet. That would create unwarranted hardship on all those involved in producing, shipping and marketing the goods we crave. Instead, let’s apply a more gradualist, say, 10 percent rule. As in any sustainable weight management program, small increments are better than large drastic shifts that most often are not sustainable for very long. Cutting back 10 percent on the calories we consume and increasing by 10 percent the time we spend doing exercise routines, is just more manageable and sustainable for most of us.
We can apply the same 10-percent rule in our overall consumption as well. Buy 10 percent less and allow 10 percent more time for it to arrive. Collectively, the outcome will be less pressure on product supply chains, giving businesses the buffer of somewhat smaller volume and longer delivery times to accommodate and adjust for labor and materials shortages. And that 10 percent cutback in our spending, well, that can be channeled into bulking up our savings and generating some funds for investing for retirement or unanticipated needs.
Incremental adjustments in the pace and quantity of our consumer lifestyles just might cultivate a sense of appreciation for how fortunate we are in getting what we get and when we want to get it. Also, we can bring back that sense of anticipation and excitement that once was a central part of American frontier life of simple expectations.
Second, learn how to “make do” with more of what we have. It’s perhaps telling that this double-verb phrase “make do” is a quaint expression of the past from today’s perspective. Perhaps that’s because we’ve become a generation of discard-and-replace consumers who have unlearned all the skills of our earlier repair-and-reuse parents and grandparents. Maybe it’s time to resurrect “make do” and restore it to a more prominent position in our daily lives.
When we hold onto stuff longer and select stuff with longer useful lives, we further relax pressures on supply chains. All it takes is a bit of investing in “fix-it” learning. I’m also advocating that firms manufacture products with greater useful lives as well as make components that consumers can repair or replace to maintain stuff to good working condition. The sibling of replacing stuff is extending its serviceable life and keeping it out of landfills longer. Reduced waste is not only good for a cleaner environment but also for a more resilient economy.
Third, learn to become a more sharing community. Very closely akin to making do, we have always been a nation willing to lend a helping hand whether in our local communities or in countries halfway around the globe. We lead the world in the capacity to help our citizens as well as our world neighbors cope with unforeseen natural or civil disaster. We must advocate – and be willing to pay taxes – for public programs that can move quickly to return life to normal after whatever kind of disruptions occur. We should also recognize and support the non-governmental and community-based organizations which collectively make enormous contributions to improving the lives of the least fortunate among us. Even informal arrangements as agreeing with our neighbors who buys and shares out their ladder, carpentry tools, etc. can restore a sense of community lost to the past not to mention cultivating a more cost-effective use of shared equipment.
Local government provides the framework and the sense of community to step in at times when the federal government simply will not have the capacity to provide sufficient and timely support to meet our needs for full recovery following severe disruptive events. Community leaders – in both local public offices and businesses - as a rule know best where the greatest and most immediate needs are among their residents. That gives communities a critical role in partnering with federal government to respond promptly and systematically to local needs following disasters that disrupt our lives and livelihoods.
Trust in each other is close kin to community self-reliance and a critical component to any collective effort. Too often our American ‘rugged individualism’ has gotten in the way of recognizing that there are some things that just cannot be done alone. Take as example, building public highways and bridges. Built into our transportation network is an element of trust: first that those who designed and constructed them did so using sound principles of physics and engineering; and second that those regulating and inspecting those roads and bridges are professional in assessing the quality and integrity of those structures. To get such professionalism and impartiality we need to protect and preserve the quality of the institutions of higher learning that produce technical specialists.
Fourth, show greater respect for the service professions and tradesmen (and women). These are the people who work to repair and maintain our vehicles and appliances, our homes and businesses. The technical professions are beginning to gain greater popularity and respectability as we become aware of how critical is the dependable supply of essential services – electricity, potable water, sanitation, as well as road networks, public safety, child care. These services are all provided by people just like us who have the same needs and wants. Their skills are not learned at four-year liberal arts colleges but at technical schools and in apprenticeship work. We need them. I don’t want a liberal arts major in seventeenth century English poetry trying to repair my furnace when it goes out. I want a skilled technician. We need more well-paid technical specialists to grow as a nation.
Fifth, save and invest more. As individuals and as a nation Americans stand out for our low levels of saving and investing. Look no further than the levels of household indebtedness and the decaying condition of our national infrastructure to realize that we have come to a point where we need to cut back on material spending and increase our rainy day saving. Research funded by the US Federal Reserve highlights that less than 40% of American households have enough in savings to cover the cost of a $400.00 emergency expenditure. Supply chain disruptions resulting from failing transportation infrastructure, for example, can lead to temporary job loss across several industrial sectors and prove catastrophic for many American workers and their families.
Recovery from supply chain failures caused by deteriorating transportation networks can prove many times more costly than if we invest and budget for preventive maintenance and repair to avoid such failures. This will require money but it should be viewed as an investment in the future rather than a current budget expenditure. When we build, we should “build back better” as the current administration is advocating. It won’t be cheap if it is to be done correctly. That’s because it's an intergenerational commitment as well. Just as we have benefited from the transportation networks built and paid for by past generations, we should recognize the responsibility to the costs of maintaining those infrastructure investments so that future generations can enjoy them as well.
Sixth, become better risk managers. At all levels individuals, state and federal government agencies and domestic and international businesses should have sufficient insurance coverage for loss of property, livelihoods, good health. Any or all of these losses may result from dramatic climatic events, political disturbances or low-grade international conflicts that will disrupt not only supply chains but also destroy the very assets on which we live – our homes, for example – and make our livelihoods – our businesses. We need to factor comprehensive insurance coverage into our cost of living as individuals, communities and a nation so when adversity strikes and disruptions occur, we are prepared to cover any losses and to rebuild promptly.
Seventh, get religion. Major disruptive events are so dramatic and the impact so devastating that for many of us to endure, we need a sense of spiritual support and guidance to help us get back on our feet. Seeking help from spiritual sources can provide us comfort and direction for coping and recovering, not just some of us but all of us together. Spiritual support removes the burden of attempting to fathom the depths of tragedy to which we might experience. Spiritual reinforcement provides the awareness that there is a greater good, a divine equation, that we are not expected to understand but we recognize that by some unfathomable divine formula we have been equipped for responsible stewardship of this planet.
Eighth, support social safety net programs. Those least capable, often through no fault of their own, can fall on hard times and for the benefit of all of us they may need a helping hand to bounce back after serious market disruptions whether from natural or man-made causes. As a country, America is good at delivering humanitarian assistance overseas when foreign populations need help getting back on their feet. Our history of supporting recovery and rebuilding dates from the Marshall Plan to restore a war-torn Europe in the mid-20th century to relief sent to nations experiencing hunger and homelessness following major floods, droughts and civil disturbances. At home we’ve also been very good at helping communities rebuild and restore the flow of goods and services following fires and floods. We need to build up and sustain that capacity to handle national catastrophic events that may well come with more frequency and more intensity in the future.
Ninth, learn from history. The last two centuries have been punctuated by wars and conflicts which at times must have seemed endless to those caught up in them. The end did come and rebuilding did follow even though some conflicts such as our own American Civil War seem to have a legacy of lingering pain, injustice and resentment that remains with us to this day. We need to relearn how we came together after these cathartic events ended. Future climate disturbances and civil conflict will likely have features in common with past struggles. We need to recognize that now and prepare to handle the tensions before they escalate into something more dangerous and damaging.
The list of steps we can take seems long but many of us have already begun to act. But to address the increased arbitrariness of the forces of nature and the challenges of the diverse society and highly developed economy in which we live, work and play, it’s past the time to act. And to act together in as one community like the inhabitants of that fictional but very typical American mid-western town of River City, Iowa, so we all can share the joy of anticipating a brighter and more promising future. ###
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