Broken supply chain a problem, but also a chance to learn to live with less

by Cynthia M. Allen

Headlines are projecting that the prospects for the upcoming holidays look bleak.

COVID-19 is in retreat, thankfully, but new obstacles to the season’s usual cheer have arisen: The supply chain appears to be broken.

The pandemic has dogged the world economy for more than a year; COVID restrictions overseas have slowed production and caused widespread disruptions at home. (Who can forget the great toilet paper panic of 2020?)

But now, a shortage of longshoremen has created a kind of traffic jam at American ports, as cargo ships sit idle in unusually long lines, waiting for their contents to be unloaded.

To further complicate matters, a shortage of truckers and chassis needed to haul cargo containers means that even when goods are unloaded, they will wait again to be transported around the country.

Retailers everywhere are warning customers to expect shortages of popular products (even as they’re issuing the usual holiday promotions and discounts). Shipping companies foretell delays as costs soar.

Rising prices are also contributing to the general sense that we are heading into leaner times when the things we’re accustomed to readily buying simply aren’t as available or affordable as they once were.

There’s a good chance a lot of the stuff that fills stockings and the space under trees will still be trapped in shipping containers and tractor trailers come Christmas morning.

Many Americans who were hoping that the holidays would be back to normal this year are probably wondering if Dr. Anthony Fauci did indeed cancel Christmas.

At the risk of sounding too much like a recent scolding Washington Post opinion piece which argued that spoiled American consumers should just shut up — maybe there is a silver lining for many of us.

Bear with me.

Our supply chain problems are real and, for a nation generally unfamiliar with scarcity, quite daunting.

They are also rife with opportunity to do what I suggested in a column two years ago — learn to live (and to be happy) with less.

Lockdowns and related policies caused cascading economic problems, some of which our elected leaders tried to address by throwing extra cash at Americans in the hopes that they would spend it.

As Amanda Mull writes in The Atlantic, our government and media equated consumerism with citizenship — pleading with Americans “to spend more money — to create jobs, to revitalize the economy, to save the country.”

Americans obliged, using stimulus checks and money socked away for activities and travel made impossible during lockdowns, to the great benefit of large online retailers who have enjoyed record profits over the past two years.

Remarkably, “the United States is now actually importing more physical goods than ever before,” explains Jordan Weissmann in Slate. “Measured by shipping container volume, imports were up 5% year-over-year in September, and up 17% compared with the same time in 2019.”

While discretionary spending is more concentrated among the affluent, the large cash infusions for all income levels mean that we’re all buying more stuff than usual.

A lot of it is stuff we don’t need, but it has filled the void left by activities, experiences and human interactions that missing from our lives these past two years.

That reliance on stuff over people should end this year, and not just because public health authorities have said it finally can or because supply chain problems force the issue.

We can be happy with much less.

Don’t forget that when the supply chain starts working again.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at cmallen@star-telegram.com.