Supply Chains to Nowhere

For decades, manufacturers worked diligently to “right-size” their supply chains. By right-sizing, this meant lean manufacturing, or just-in-time manufacturing, so the inventory costs for raw and semi-finished materials were as close to zero as possible. Entire college degree programs were predicated on supply chain optimization, and for several decades, this approach seemed to be extremely successful.

Until. Until the pandemic caused untold upsets within the carefully crafted supply chains. Now it was not possible to get raw materials just in advance of the need for these materials in the manufacturing process. Now it became worthwhile to invest in inventories, since reducing inventory costs is meaningless when you cannot produce product. Manufacturers are having to take a much more holistic view of inventories in terms of ensuring continuity of operations. See what impact the microprocessor shortage is having in multiple manufacturing supply chains? Vehicle manufacturers have resorted to completing vehicles except for the electronics, and storing those vehicles locally until the computer chips are received and the vehicles can be completed. All of this extra work and extra inventory reduces the profit margins manufacturers have. The price the ultimate consumer pays goes up. And inflation, the dragon we thought had been vanquished, rises from his cavern and lays waste to all he surveys.

We had banished inflation due to several factors. But I believe the most important of these was the opening of the entire world as a potential source for finished products. Now it was possible to source goods from anywhere in the globe, and we had labor cost arbitrage playing out in all of the Fortune 500 companies. It simply cost a lot less to outsource manufacturing operations to other countries, and when you add in the reduced regulatory costs, we outsourced a lot of our pollution as well. American consumers didn’t care. All we cared about was receiving goods at the lowest possible cost. Thus we decided we didn’t need small-scale vendors for all of the items you could get from a big box store. A single store like a WalMart can replace dozens of small retailers, and we saw this happen in many, many towns across the US. Add the convenience of the internet in there, and it is no wonder the growth story of Amazon further drove consolidation of retailing.  Many pathways to the middle class were smashed along the way as Americans voted with their dollars.

The pandemic, though, caused the pool of consumerism to be overwhelmed by tsunamis. Shortages began to appear, and a public unaccustomed to any type of shortage, soon became attuned to things like delivery schedules to stores. Restocking would occur, only to be overwhelmed by those who stocked up in bulk when that was never their habit in the before times. Soon people noticed lengthening delivery times, and those promises often were violated as deliveries fell further behind. Auto dealer lots became dusty vacant parking lots as the effects of these disruptions appeared at the local level.

When the worker at the bottom of the pyramid saw what was happening, they realized the balance of power was shifting between employer and worker. The growth of the warehousing and delivery businesses offered an opportunity to increase an individual’s wages substantially. Once that happened, the restaurant and other service industries found it difficult to rehire a work force once they began to reopen. It was amusing to see the Republicans blame labor shortages on overly generous government benefits. Of course, the actions of the Republican governors were to end pandemic unemployment programs, which had minimal effect on labor shortages. It is good to see so many folks who believe in the intrinsic laziness of the citizenry, where any attempt at using the tax system to foster equality must be quashed in favor of more tax cuts for the wealthy. Some things just don’t change.

So the dragon of inflation once more is circling overhead, threatening to burn everyone and everything in its path. It is surely an unpopular view to say that we are seeing prices creep upward and it is totally justified. Yet if you look at what we’ve bought over the last 40 years, we did buy a lot of low prices. Our behavior demanded low prices. We viewed it as our right to always have everything we wanted, at our beck and call, and to never have to wait for anything. What we didn’t see was that this change in behavior was leading to the development of an underclass of workers who just couldn’t make it on their wages. If you look at a distribution of incomes across the country, you see a bulge around $20-30,000 per year. The largest number of households fall within that class. If you work full time at $15 / hour, you barely reach the $30,000 plateau. Hard working folks just found it impossible to get by on their meager wages. Since the average household income is over $60,000, it means there’s a lot of folks on the extremely high end of the scale to balance out those earning $15 per hour and less.

We have gone through amazing times with this pandemic. Perhaps it is enough to cause us to examine our own habits, and realize that the lowest price sometimes cost a lot more than buying local. You do see some examples of paying more voluntarily. The growth of organic produce and organic food choices is one area where people pay more in order to benefit themselves, and also the environment. But the same people who buy organic, will order items from Amazon, and not think at all about the impact of their ordering on the rest of the world. Maybe it is time for us to realize that low prices are not the most important part of our lives.

Would it be too much to expect people to change their habits to enable money to stay within their community, instead of enriching some global institution? Yeah, I think it is. That is why I expect politics to devolve into further blaming the current administration for all of the rise in prices. Just like we expect instant gratification for all of our purchases, we insist on flawless execution by our government and thus we always take the easy way out.

Human Evolution in Real Time

One of my projects has been to make it through Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Even though I am not finished with it, I can appreciate what I am seeing in society at present. I am seeing evolution in action within the human race. In the response to COVID, it is apparent that humanity is divided between those who believe in science, and those who steadfastly deny science. The ones who believe in science are those who have accepted the medical miracle of mRNA vaccines, and are current with their inoculations. Those who deny science are the portion of humanity who refuse to accept a vaccine, even when a close family member is in the ICU on a ventilator due to COVID infection.

As such, we should expect differences to show up in the death rates between the two sides of the debate. Those who are vaccinated should have a lower rate of death than those who have failed to avail themselves of the opportunity. And so, humanity will have a slight tendency towards favoring the reproductive success of those who believe in science. Evolution has been captured in real time.

Of course, many of those who do die of the virus are past their reproductive period in life. The disease still overwhelmingly kills those who are older. But when you hear about someone being taken in the prime of life, someone with young children, then it is possible that the genes of those who deny science won’t proliferate as much as they would have.

Within the US, the sentiment towards vaccine refusal is highly correlated with other traits. Apparently those who object to mask mandates in schools also believe in the infallibility of the American story. We as a nation can do no wrong, we have never done wrong, and those who would indoctrinate our precious children with uncomfortable facts that contradict this set of beliefs are evil, and must be opposed vociferously. Thus it is we see school board meetings becoming contentious, and efforts are made to elect those who have the right political perspective. After all, children should be shielded from anything that might make them think. They must swallow the snake oil nostrum of American superiority, and manifest destiny. But I digress.

One thing apparent is the lack of people to understand and accept uncertainty. Their expectation is that experts should be required to have absolute answers at all times as this pandemic unfolded. Their resistance received a boost when the experts at the CDC changed their recommendations over time. You still hear that the experts were against mask usage at the start of this pandemic, and therefore we should still not wear masks. Never mind that the CDC experts were trying to ensure masks were available to health care providers, and due to neglect of the public health over the decades, inventories of protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic were tragically low. Our worship of low inventories and just-in-time delivery left us woefully unprepared to deal with the surge in demand for basic PPE (as a chemical plant employee, I was aware of Personal Protective Equipment. Most in society had never even considered such matters). So when the CDC took stock of inventories after the initial surge, it was apparent that masks would be available to most of the population. They changed their recommendation to wear masks in public places. However, the die had already been cast for many folks. They insisted that professionals were against masks initially, and therefore masks were of no use.

Similarly, as we learned of the nature of COVID, we learned transmission is mainly through airborne exposure. The fanatical trends towards decontaminating anything from outside the home slowly went away. There are still remnants of this in the public space. Condiments are still unavailable at many restaurants due to the fear of cross-contamination from an infected individual. And it is also obvious that in public facilities, the long-term trend towards energy efficiency made it more difficult for buildings to meet the air exchange recommendations in schools and other public buildings. Most schools built in the past 50 years don’t even have windows that can be opened, so making HVAC systems more robust will mean energy costs for these public facilities will increase.

Many of those who have resisted vaccines care not at all for any of these issues. In fact, many resisters still insist the entire concern about this novel coronavirus is not merited. After all, most colds are coronaviruses, and we don’t shut down the economy for colds, do we? For those who are so withdrawn from reality, it is not possible to realistically convert them away from their beliefs towards new ones that contradict their entrenched positions.

So instead what we are seeing is a slight tendency towards higher survival for those who are more accepting of advances in science. If you continue this trend for several generations, maybe in the 24th century mankind will be more accepting of advances in science instead of insisting God provides all of the natural immunity anyone needs. One can hope that something good can come from the tragedy we’ve all been living through.

Looking Back One Year

First floor plan for the US Capital as of 1997

It was the Sunday immediately before the inauguration in 2017. A fellow church choir member totally misread my leanings and said, “I’m sure glad we’re about to have an alpha male as President.” I don’t remember the exact words I said, but I left no doubt that I believed we were about to undergo rule by an Epsilon man, someone who was as far from alpha as it was possible to get.

Shortly after the inauguration, this choir member left our church. It may have been related to a dispute about him playing his bagpipes for a service intended to honor Ireland, but no doubt his disillusionment at finding himself in an ideological isolation ward was a piece of his motivation for leaving.

How did this nation get into the situation where so many were bamboozled into believing the bully in the White House represented the apex in evolution? Why is it that serial business failure and serial philandering were converted to symbols of strength and resolution? I guess PR is capable of overcoming just about any fault if the opposite is proclaimed often and loudly. At least there were enough credulous people to blindly support anyone who promises to bring back things the way they were, and they managed to overcome the will of the majority and install their favorite.

What is worrying is those who were on the short end of the stick in 2020 are feverishly working to prevent the “wrong” election results in the future. Wrong is defined as any election won by the liberal faction of the electorate. Supposedly the followers of Donald Trump are insistent upon attempting to reverse the course of history in order to bring us back into an age where women and minorities knew their places, and only right-thinking, alpha males glom onto the levers of power and wrench society back into its former trajectory.

So now any attempt at teaching facts about race and how it has affected the history of the US is viewed as brainwashing of innocent children in public schools. Never mind that most of the white population in the South withdrew their precious children from public schools back in the 1970’s when a challenge to white supremacy was made by integration and busing. Most of the children who were educated in religiously affiliated southern schools never gave up their view of their own superiority because they never had to face diversity. They now insist their children could not ever learn any facts about their country that were not passed through the John Wayne filter, lest it give their children distress.

One of the great benefits of living in the United States is the inclusion we offer. That inclusion is often far too gradual for the benefit of the original immigrants, yet it is true that the work ethics of immigrants often greatly exceeds that of native Americans of the correct race. Why is it so many restaurants are founded and staffed by immigrants? Small businesses form the springboard into the middle and upper classes, a path still largely unavailable to those in countries who provide these immigrants. We’ve had a little bit of exposure to a country where the flow of immigrants is suddenly cut off. The staffing shortages at many service industries is a taste of what life would be like without new residents filling the jobs deemed below the dignity of “true Americans”.

Supposedly this country gave away our manufacturing jobs in the previous decades. The anger of those who believe they are owed a living at a now rusted-out hulk of a factory is palpable, and helps to fuel the grievances of Trump nation. Nowhere is it acknowledged that the decline of international conflict allowed for money flows across borders, and it was the necessity of showing a profit which drove manufacturers to abandon the high wage and high regulations of this nation in favor of less restrictive and less expensive locations. If those who bemoan the current economic environment really wanted to improve their lot, they would mount an attack against those in the system who benefit from high return on investment. But instead, they have been coopted into believing an attack on the wealthy represents an attack on them, and thus they universally believe higher taxes equals communism.

It is the need to wave the cultural flag that drove the mindless hordes who attacked the Capital on January 6 of last year. So many of those hordes have now adopted an attitude of “we did nothing wrong. We were invited into the building.” The media facilitators go along with this farce, leading to a self-reinforcing do-loop of inane insanity. So when the House committee goes public with their hearings and report, it will make not a whit of difference to those who are fully invested in the fake universe they live in. No minds will be changed. No momentum will be gained by those who still view reality as something we have to adjust to. Well, now the reality we live in includes a minority who refuse to accept facts, and have proven a propensity to violence aimed at imposing their will onto those who disagree with them.

Will those of us who see the events of January 6, 2021 as symptomatic of a grave infection in the body politic of the US, be able to hold off the crazed minority aimed at domination of the US? Only if we are willing to share our perspectives across the political spectrum, so that those in the minority really do believe they are on the losing end of the arc of history.