Supply Chain of Fools

ryan johnson’s trucker driver seat perspective on the current supply chain crisis reminds us that markets are what we want them to be.

Ryan Johnson’s trucker driver seat perspective on the current supply chain crisis in the US and the world—“I’m A Twenty Year Truck Driver, I Will Tell You Why America’s ‘Shipping Crisis’ Will Not End”—reveals how broken this industry at the heart of so many other industries is. The supposed laws of supply and demand do not end in equilibrium. When it comes to supply chains, they have ended up in imbalance. Independent-contractor truckers are unable to make a living, ending up in a kind of modern-day sharecropper system. Shipping companies, meanwhile, profit not by improving efficiencies, but rather by being more inefficient. Goods pile up, with nowhere to go. So much for logistics ruling the day, for the market as currently constructed sorting things out. Run on a supposed free market model, the shipping industry shows, at least in Johnson’s essay, how unfree markets can actually turn out to be.

But the response here is likely not markets or no markets. The invisible hands are missing in action, but total state control likely wouldn’t work either. It’s worth stepping back to think more critically how, when it comes to supply chains, markets are what we make them. After all, we forget that invisible hands are attached to arms, bodies, and heads. They grip with power directed by someone, somewhere. We call analyzing the dynamics of that clutching for control political economy. We can notice how the hands are not invisible at all. At the same time, markets are also cultural creations. Their logistics are not purely immaterial, invisible hands guiding them to perfect balance; nor are they solely material, ruled by iron fists of market laws.

We might grasp instead that supply chains are forged by struggles over who gets what, on what terms, by what rules. Markets that are only functional because of these supply chains are, ultimately, what we want them to be. They are customizable, linked together by hand shakes as well as invisible hands. They ask us to consider what our duties are to each other. They are created and sustained by customs.

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