Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.
Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.
Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*.
We see this today with the things we urgently need but don’t have. We don’t have enough coronavirus tests, or test materials — including, amazingly, cotton swabs and common reagents. We don’t have enough ventilators, negative pressure rooms, and ICU beds. And we don’t have enough surgical masks, eye shields, and medical gowns. […] Why do we not have these things? Medical equipment and financial conduits involve no rocket science whatsoever. At least therapies and vaccines are hard! Making masks and transferring money are not hard. We could have these things but we chose not to — specifically we chose not to have the mechanisms, the factories, the systems to make these things. We chose not to *build*.
In the long run, I don’t expect normal either. Pre-crisis, our patterns of specialization and trade were optimized for efficiency at the expense of fragility. Expect supply chains in the future to have a lot more redundancy and to be less driven by cost minimization. The Chief Risk Officer’s approval will now be needed before the CEO will approve a major new supply contract.
We will develop a lot of what you might call social-distancing capital, including the ability to make use of remote meetings and distance learning. Last night, some folks attempted a virtual session of dancing. Most of the time was spent getting a bunch of old people up to speed on using Zoom. Next time, we might be able to dance. People will get accustomed to new forms of entertaintment.
The thing that still confused me is how reliable supply chains are, or seem to be. The world is unpredictable—you’ve got earthquakes, labor strikes, mudslides, every conceivable tragedy—and yet as a consumer I can pretty much count on getting what I want whenever I want it. How can it be possible to predict a package’s arrival down to the hour, yet know almost nothing about the conditions of its manufacture? […]
The picture that many of us have of supply chains involve state-of-the-art factories like those owned by Foxconn. In reality, the nodes of most modern supply chains look much less impressive: small, workshop-like outfits run out of garages and outbuildings. The proliferation and decentralization of these improvisational workshops help explain both why it’s hard for companies to understand their own supply chains, and why the supply chains themselves are so resilient.
Nel suo ultimo libro, The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen — blogger ed economista — sostiene che la società americana abbia smesso di rischiare e si sia seduta — preferendo miglioramenti marginali a tecnologie pre-esistenti piuttosto che cambiamenti radicali, il che ha contribuito col portare l’economia a una situazione di stagnazione. A cambiamenti radicali nel modo di creare, consumare e organizzare l’informazione si sono affiancati cambiamenti marginali nel mondo fisico: treni, aerei, infrastruttura, ad esempio, non sono progrediti di pari passo con il mondo virtuale.
Secondo Tyler, questo ritmo di ‘non cambiamento’ non è sostenibile:
The Complacent Class argues that this cannot go on forever. We are postponing change, due to our near-sightedness and extreme desire for comfort, but ultimately this will make change, when it comes, harder. The forces unleashed by the Great Stagnation will eventually lead to a major fiscal and budgetary crisis: impossibly expensive rentals for our most attractive cities, worsening of residential segregation, and a decline in our work ethic. The only way to avoid this difficult future is for Americans to force themselves out of their comfortable slumber—to embrace their restless tradition again.