Welcome to the era of the everything shortage

From plumbers to chicken wings, good luck finding what you need

By Morf Morford

Tacoma Daily Index

It’s not your imagination, and it’s not just you; we seem to have shortages of everything from lumber to rental cars and everything in between.

We in America, for decades proud of our unending abundance and efficient supply chains are experiencing (for most of us for the first time) what most of the world has taken as a given; you literally can’t always get what you want.

Grocery store shelves are empty – and stay that way – gas pumps are empty – and prices for everyday items, if you can find them at all, are not for the faint of heart.

We wrote about our supply chains last summer (https://www.tacomadailyindex.com/blog/god-bless-our-supply-chains/2447604/) when glitches in production held up daily basics like toilet paper and inspired hoarding and grocery store aisle fist fights. Some of us thought that brought out the worst of us. Toilet paper at ten dollars a roll seemed like price-gouging at its worst.

But, as we know now, that was just the beginning.

Who among us would have expected market disrupting shortages in copper, iron ore, and steel. Corn, coffee, wheat, and soybeans. Lumber, semiconductors, plastic, and cardboard for packaging. Or even packets of sauce and ketchup at fast food restaurants.

Pent up demand is one reason – and that’s a huge one that, on a global scale, could have tilted, if not derailed supply chains around the world.

And as the late night infomercials might put, “But wait! There’s more!”

Factor in the global shipping fiasco in the Suez Canal, droughts and crop failures in the prime agricultural basins of the world, record forest and grass fires, deep freezes down to the most southern parts of Texas and the hack/ransomware of the Colonial Pipeline and you have a recipe for food and fuel shortages like we have never seen on a scale we could not have imagined.

And don’t expect any of it to end any time soon.

Or leave us anywhere close to what we considered “normal” just a few short months ago.

There are more factors than these at work – from available inventory, warehouse capacity, truck drivers or potential workers, every aspect of our much vaunted supply chain seems in jeopardy. For those of you who want to pursue the minutia on our supply line projections, take a look here – http://www.the-lmi.com/april-2021-logistics-managers-index.html.

The Federal Reserve Board (among others) assure us that these inflationary and shortage trends are “transitional”. The word “transitional” could mean years.

But we eat and live and drive now.

That piece of plywood costs about four times what it did a year ago. If you can find it.

Have you looked at car prices? New car prices – and surprisingly, used car prices – have exploded lately. If you can even find one.

It seems that every market factor (and a few external market forces) have impacted every facet of prices and availability from labor (especially skilled labor) and raw material shortages, escalating raw material prices, manufacturing delays and transit interruptions.

You know all those “smart” devices we’ve become accustomed to? From cars to thermostats to smart speakers, these digital devices have invaded, if not dominated our lives and now, thanks to a variety of production complications, the chips that make them work are suddenly not available.

From chicken wings to housing, everything seems to be in short supply.

Imported goods, from coffee to cheese to olive oil are largely stranded in ports in the US as well as the rest of the world (https://www.businessinsider.com/cargo-ships-waiting-to-dock-california-contributes-supply-chain-crisis-2021-4).

One of the ironies of this era of shortages is a related labor shortage. It seems that everywhere I go, I see “Help wanted” signs. Businesses are gearing up, but where are the workers?

I know several people looking for work, but even more who are not. Those who are not looking for work have a variety of personal, yet universal, reasons for not looking for work.

Many of them literally cannot afford to work; combine low pay with transportation and childcare costs and, for some, health issues, working for pay doesn’t even begin to “pencil out”.

Others cite burnout, or even concerns about harassment or conflicts at work with customers or fellow workers, but either way, the workplace itself is seen as a site of stress, not productivity.

And good luck finding any specialist when you need one. From dermatologists to electricians, there are just not enough of them out there.

AARP and Social Security have, for years now, told us that 10,000 people a day are retiring. They expect that trend to continue for a few more years. That’s a tremendous loss of experiential knowledge and institutional memory walking out the door on any given day.

Even when we do get our hands on something, it often is not what we had expected – like a can of beans from Costco – with a side order of botulism (https://www.self.com/story/black-bean-recall-botulism?).

A supply chain on the scale that we are accustomed to has multi-thousands of intricately fitted-together moving parts, each one crafted for a particular, unique and essential purpose.

A nation-wide supply chain takes years to set up, many hands, and many details of specialized expertise, constant maintenance and is to everyone’s advantage to maintain.

Once in place, a supply chain is solid, flexible and, most of the time, robust and reliable.

And, as we have seen, it takes years of negligence, malfeasance, if not outright assault, to disrupt a functional supply chain.

Our supply chain, to put it mildly, is in fact disrupted, maybe semi-permanently.

That mirage of “normal” is looking more distant every day.

Oddly enough, an anthem of The Rolling Stones from 1969 has emerged as a prophesy or summary of our era;

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometime {Editor’s note: and are willing to spend far more than you ever imagined}

you just might find

That you get what you need.

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