About 15 years ago I helped to host a group of Russian entrepreneurs during one stop on their tour of the United States, a tour sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce. As we hosts accompanied our visitors, we naturally fell into conversation with them. One of them noted a contrast with Russian life that stuck with me because it was offered in terms that were so unexpectedly strange. He said that compared to Russian grocery stores, “your grocery stores are like museums.”
Just as fish don’t notice they are swimming in water, we Americans are prone to think of our spacious (by world standards) grocery stores with their carefully arranged and brimming shelves; colorful produce sections; fulsome meat counters; and well-stocked frozen dessert cases—all festooned with artfully crafted point-of-purchase displays—as merely utilitarian platforms for obtaining our daily provisions.
Fast forward to today and we find that some grocery stores are unexpectedly moving even closer to the museum model, but not in the good way my Russian acquaintance had in mind. We are, of course, not surprised to see pretty pictures in museums rather than the objects those images depict. Now, in some of grocery stores in Great Britain, pretty pictures are being used to cover over gaps in the produce and dry goods sections.
The cause for those gaps is put down in part to the logistics challenges facing Britain as it adjusts to altered trade flows in the wake of its withdrawal from the European Union.
But I am now seeing noticeable gaps opening up in the shelves of my local grocery stores in Washington, D.C. And, there are others noticing the same phenomenon. The situation is not yet critical. Basic foodstuffs still appear to be easily and widely available.
The cause for these spreading shortages is a supply chain weakened by decades of streamlining in an effort to cut costs and reward investors with the savings. We have a supply chain optimized for finance, not for actual living. Any prudent person knows that life including business life is likely to include unexpected disruptions from time to time. These disruptions are easier to get through if we have planned for them. If we lose a job, the bad effects are mitigated somewhat if we have sufficient savings. We can manage until we find another job.
But the worldwide logistics system we have designed is more like a person who lives paycheck to paycheck. The minute there’s a gap in deliveries, chaos and difficulties ensue. Inventories are eschewed in favor of “just-in-time” delivery. When something doesn’t show up at the factory door, production stops for want of a critical part. Or, in the case of grocery stores, shelves go empty—and store owners try to mask this embarrassing fact by spreading out existing inventory or even, as mentioned above, posting pictures of the missing items on empty shelves.
We are told that this is a temporary problem and that supply chains will ultimately adjust. I’m not convinced that will happen anytime soon. The reason has to do with the complexity of the system we have built. Because it is so complex, no one really understands how it all works, that is, no one understands all the linkages and what disruptions in any of those linkages will lead to.
I think our logistics system has become like the so-called “three-body problem” in physics. It should be noted that the problem of describing the motion of three interacting bodies precisely has not been solved and, furthermore, it’s a problem in which there is no element of human decision-making. The Encyclopedia Britannica states: “No general solution of this problem (or the more general problem involving more than three bodies) is possible, as the motion of the bodies quickly becomes chaotic.”
Our logisitics system is like a three-body problem with millions and even billions of bodies including the bodies of sentient humans making all kinds of decisions, many of which are unpredictable. In short, that system is so complex that no one really understands it fully. And that means no one has any clear idea of how to fix it.
What’s broken in our logistics system may not be broken in the manner or for the reasons imagined. Trying to figure out “causes” in complex interacting, looped systems is often difficult and more often impossible. The loops made by cargo containers across oceans and back seem simple enough. But they are actually so complex that shippers are now faced with chaos and extreme shortages in the wake of several interlocking problems. There appears to be no quick solution.
It’s certainly possible that the world will go back to what passed for normal before the pandemic. But I have my doubts. I think it is more likely that some new perturbation in the worldwide logistics system will come along and create additional novel problems, ones that may be as inscrutable as the three-body problem.
Photo: Covid-19 buying panic, shelves empty of bread, Fred Meyers, Federal Way, Washington (2020). By Wonderlane. Via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Excellent_time_to_say_THANK_YOU_to_our_grocery_store_managers_%26_workers,_Covid-19_buying_panic,_shelves_empty_of_bread,_Fred_Meyers,_Federal_Way,_Washington,_USA_(49662769878).jpg