The industrial machine that is America today is not a person (any more than a corporation is), but if it were, we would understand clearly that its vascular system — the mechanical network that supplies petro-nutrients to all its robot parts, without which it cannot survive for a minute — consists of highways filled with tractor-trailer rigs. Heads up: the system has severe atherosclerosis.
If 18-wheelers are nothing more to you than annoyances in rush-hour traffic, then consider: all of your food, clothing, building materials, electronics, and gasoline, to mention a few categories — all of it arrived at the place where you bought it by truck. If the trucks don’t arrive, you don’t get it. Period.
You would think that a system essential to our survival would engage our attention, especially if it’s showing signs of giving out. Granted that we don’t pay much attention to our heart when it’s healthy. But after a few bouts of severe chest pains, the prudent person begins to pay attention.
So pay attention. Since the Great Recession began (in 2007, give or take a few years) more than 2,000 American trucking companies have gone out of business. The survivors sold off their older, less efficient rigs and delayed buying new ones. Between 2009 and 2011, available trucking capacity in the United States was reduced by an estimated 40%. The surviving companies now enjoy strong and growing demand, but cannot hire enough drivers. The shortfall is currently estimated at 400,000.
The reason that this enormous contraction amounted to chest pains and not a full-blown heart attack was that it occurred as the entire economy contracted. The amount of freight that people wanted to ship declined by about the same amount as the capacity of the trucks to move it. But now that the woozy economy is close to stabilized (barring new impacts) and is thinking about growing again, the lack of trucks and drivers with which to fill orders is going to amount to a lot more than angina.
Economist Noël Perry, who studies the freight industry, told the annual conference of the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals last year in in Philadelphia:
“Sometime in 2012 there is a reasonable probability of sporadic supply chain failures based on capacity.”
For an example of what a sporadic supply-chain failure could mean, see “Thunderstorm Threatens WV Famine.” Now what, do you suppose, would a systemic failure look like?
Is it not remarkable that in a country whose greatest problem is said to be a lack of jobs, whose greatest need is supposedly for job creators, these jobs are going begging? It is said that the pay — 40-60 thousand dollars a year — is not good enough. It is said that the lifestyle — many days away from home — is not attractive. Is this really another job Americans won’t do? Sitting for hours on end in air-conditioned comfort, listening to country music, with frequent breaks for steak and ice cream?
It is also notable that the government, as it is wont to do, is doing its very best to make the situation worse by weaving ever-larger and -denser webs of regulations and reporting requirements that seldom incorporate even a smidgen of common sense.
Meanwhile fuel costs are up 30 per cent. Emissions standards are tightening. Traffic congestion is worsening. Frivolous lawsuits are piling up (if you’re a trucking company, and one of your drivers is in an accident, you are going to get sued for a gazillion dollars no matter what the circumstances).
So if the industrial machine was a person, it would probably be clutching its chest right now and murmuring something about “the big one.”