Get your finger off your cell phone screen and stop ordering stuff!
America's supply chain needs your help.
I first started to notice them when I lived in Hollywood and drove out to Riverside County to Lake Perris on the weekends for the dirt track races. One year the land alongside the 60 Freeway through Ontario, California was open fields and a vineyard for the Galleano Winery. The next year, they were everywhere. Warehouses lined the freeway to the north and south: Costco, Walmart, Home Depot, FedEx, Petco, AutoZone, Nestle, Bridgestone – all of them had massive shipping facilities alongside others that were even bigger owned by freight companies like All-Ways Pacific Expediters, Damco and Komar Distribution Services.
I mean, these places were BIG, some of them more than 1000 feet long, lined with dozens and dozens of truck loading bays. They built a huge Flying J truck stop out where Mission Boulevard crosses the 60, and two massive truck parking facilities just off Riverside Boulevard. What had once been a thinly populated industrial outpost in the so-called “Inland Empire” of Greater Los Angeles had been transformed into a massive ultra-depot of the American supply network that took in containers from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach and unloaded and sorted the contents and shipped them off by tractor trailer trucks to the rest of the country.
And then suddenly, they were all over the country – gigantic warehouses off I-78 in rural Pennsylvania; huge distribution centers off I-24 and I-65 outside of Nashville; and more of them in Alabama and Georgia and Texas and…well, they were everywhere you looked. The increased centralization of American consumer shopping at big-box stores like Costco and Walmart and Target and chains of stores for everything from auto parts to pet supplies to fast food brought the warehouses with it. And then came Amazon.
Distribution centers for the online shopping behemoth appeared everywhere, and the same thing was happening within their multi-acre facilities. Goods came in by truck, were stored for a while, then they were boxed up and shipped out on other trucks. The whole thing makes you wonder how all this stuff happened before everything started getting made in China and Vietnam and shipped to the U.S. and sent all over the country. Then I remembered a trucker in Pennsylvania I caught a ride with once during my hitch-hiking youth. I rode with him to pick up a load of Coke bottles in Pittsburgh that were destined for a bottling plant on Long Island. He dropped me off along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, but I had gotten my first taste of America’s great supply system with its trucks and plants and warehouses all doing their part to deliver a bottle of Coke to a consumer at a 7-11 or a grocery store in Bethpage or Ronkonkoma.
The system worked seamlessly for a long, long time – as long as there have been products and consumers in the good old U.S.A., it would seem. And then it broke down. Most reports I’ve seen have it starting to break down during the COVID recession and then really coming apart at the seams this year as containerships lined up first by the dozens and then by the hundreds outside the ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Savannah, Seattle and Tacoma. The most recent stories I’ve seen have over 100 container ships parked off the coast of Los Angeles, two dozen anchored in Puget Sound near Seattle, and 40 off the coast of Savannah in Georgia, the nation’s fourth largest container port.
What went wrong? Well, it depends on where you start, but for the purposes of this story we’re going to start with your finger on that mouse or cell phone screen. People are ordering too much stuff. A whole lot of that stuff comes from overseas, mostly in the Far East in China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. That’s where it gets made and making stuff has turned out to be the easy part. Because then it’s loaded into containers and trucked to ports where the containers are loaded onto massive container ships, the largest of which can hold over 20 thousand containers. The ships sail across the ocean, another easy part, other than containers falling overboard, which happens more than you would think: an average of 2,600 containers were lost at sea between 2011 and 2013, according to the World Shipping Council.
It’s when the ships reach our shores that the trouble begins, and it starts right there at the ports. The port of Los Angeles is huge, more than 7,500 acres. When you count nearby Long Beach, there are more than 10,000 acres of ports in Southern California, but it appears that’s not big enough for the cargo that’s coming in, or for the cargo going out, as evidenced by the flotilla of ships currently anchored off the coast. The problems at the ports are so many it’s difficult to keep up with them: not enough crane operators to off-load the containers from the ships; not enough land to store the containers once they’re off; not enough trucks to carry them away; not enough land to store the empty containers when they return to port; not enough manpower or crane-power to reload the ships to take the empties back to the Far East.
It’s a complex business, according to my friend Bob Gardner, the only person I know who has actually worked in the American supply chain. Bob used to put together trains of shipping containers in Westminster, California for Union Pacific which had a railyard out there to the east of the ports. He told me today that the guys with the hardest jobs are the ones who operate the cranes. “You have to unload and load a ship at the same time,” he explained. “You’re removing full containers and putting empty containers back on the same ship at the same time, and it’s an art to balance the ship to keep it from rolling over.”
Then there are the yards where they store thousands and thousands of containers at once, which is “another nightmare,” according to Gardner. “A trucker will show up and he says, I’m here to pick up this container, and they look it up, and it’s on the bottom of the stack on row 24, and three containers have to be lifted and put somewhere so they can get to the one he’s there for.”
Gardner did what must have been another nightmare job for Union Pacific putting together trains to ship the containers all over the country. He had to load the trains so the last container on the last railcar was the first to come off so the train could drop its railcars as it went east, Phoenix to Tucson to San Antonio to Houston to Baton Rouge to New Orleans and so on – yet another juggling act in the massive circus that is the nation’s supply chain.
But there are more problems back at the ports: empty containers are piling up taking up a truck chassis that is needed to haul a full container away from the port. There are so many empty containers sitting on so many wasted truck chassis in Long Beach, there isn’t enough room for them at the port and they are reportedly being parked on streets outside the port. President Biden recently ordered that the ports of L.A. and Long Beach go on 24-hour schedules, but according to NPR, “the dockworkers are available around the clock, but the companies that run the port terminals have not called on them to work 24/7.” The containers, full and empty, get stacked up and there aren’t enough trucks to take them away full or bring them back empty.
Meanwhile, out in the “Inland Empire,” the warehouses are full. “Even if they get the container off the port, there's no place to put it at the other end,” Bob Schroeder, CEO of a warehousing company told NPR. He said warehouses are so full they’re taking material off the trucks and storing it in the aisles. Other reports have warehouses understaffed to the point that companies like Amazon are raising wages to get workers, and I’m certain the same thing is true for the other so-called distribution centers that have come to line the nation’s highways.
And then there are the trucking companies who can’t hire enough drivers to drive the trucks that move all that cargo from the port to the warehouse to the FedEx or UPS facility to their distribution centers to get put on their trucks to be delivered to your house. And they can’t hire enough drivers, either!
The whole system has broken down, from sea to shining sea and out there on the open seas themselves. There is just too much stuff that has to go too many places and there are too few people willing to take the jobs to do the hard work to get it where it’s going.
A report on Truthout.org predicts that “The bottlenecks in global trade and supply chains are likely to be overcome in the coming months, especially after the holiday shopping season, as global consumption patterns normalize and national economies are reactivated.” The report goes on to predict that “fourth industrial revolution technologies — including artificial intelligence; big data; machine learning; and autonomously piloted land, air and sea vehicles are driving a new round of world capitalist restructuring…that will include the digitalization of supply and logistics networks.”
In order for that to happen, the world needs to be a friendlier, happier place. But with democracies facing authoritarian crises around the world and China building replicas of U.S. warships out in their deserts to practice shooting their new hyper-sonic missiles, what do you think the odds are of that coming to pass? That’s why we’ve got to get our fingers off our phones and computer mice and stop ordering stuff. Give the global system of trade a breather, people! It needs it.
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