Commentary

If it were up to politicians, there would have been food shortages and toothbrushes would be deemed non-essential until the virus is over

The minute they talked themselves into applying China’s autocratic measures worldwide, our brainless politicians immediately cracked down on borders for lacking any idea what else to do – risking even our food supply. If it were for them, internet access would be deemed as unessential luxury until they tackled the More Important Problem, and food would have been rationed – leaving millions in the first world wonder what TF to do with flour and sugar, and whoever still drinks water.

That’s because politicians don’t know the first thing about how the world works, it is way too complex for any one entity to know, and it is not even their job to know it. But then they should also stay away from breaking the world by brainless and blunt measures just for the sake of doing something.

A politician’s urge to do something comes from the logic of politics – that can’t be helped. But that is why they should be kept away from actually breaking things when the urge comes.

Supply chains suffered this time and in some fields the damage might be irreparable. We will all pay the price for this hysteria – but sadly, it will be blamed on the wrong entities. It always is.

The market kept us fed despite political measures to crack down on people and movement, but it shed a light on the fragility of supply chains. It will very likely change, and maybe for the better.

Self-sufficiency on a personal, village or even on national level would be a huge civilizatory step backwards and a surefire way to mass deprivation and a ticket back to the middle ages in every sense of the word. But that doesn’t mean that supply chains can’t become a bit less exposed. Don’t get me wrong, just-in-time supply chain logistics were a thing of beauty and elegance – but not of robustness nor of resilience. Any politician could wreak havoc on them in a heartbeat by cracking down on borders, for instance, driven the kind of hormonal tantrum fit that is so typical of nationalists.

Because the greatest threat to our food supply is political. The markets want to deliver, because “the markets” are us, people. Natural disasters are not malevolent and if they are eventually manageable, they are so by our efforts, not by our legal limitations. Only politicians are a persistent threat. When a politician doesn’t know what to do – but must appear like doing something – he will do the only thing he knows: he will crack down on people and shut down borders.

Now that we established that it can be done to us, it will be done to us again.

And enterprises will start factoring it in. The peace time of politicians keeping a respectful distance from the economy (or at least the pretense of it) and letting people move across borders to rationalize resource allocation is over.

But that doesn’t mean that countries are suddenly a useful unit of thinking. Countries are not a useful unit of production, just as they are not useful units of epidemiological planning. Borders try to bend reality, but they can really just bend us, our minds and our behavior, while reality is fine, thank you very much, no matter how hard our anti-reality politicians are trying to wish it away.

We will all learn how much politicians suck at trying to understand the economy when they get busy strangling it with ill-conceived, micromanaging rules and poorly informed decisions, no matter how well they mean. Just think of how they handled their own institutions of epidemiological preparedness – they shut them down because they did not understand them. And that is the perfect example of the political planning of the economy. A feature, not a bug, that can be voted away if only we vote for the benevolent one.

But that doesn’t mean that companies will completely give up on cheaper sources, foreign customers, or more efficient ways of doing business. Instead of dumb and misguided self-sufficiency on arbitrary levels (such as a country), businesses will probably opt for diversification of supply chains. At the most simple level, there will be stuff made at home, other stuff within the EU, and in the third world as well, and not just in China. And it will make it painfully obvious just how much more expensive that H&M top is when it is sewn in the first world, even on minimal wage.

And the quality would also likely suffer because we in the first world don’t tolerate workplace discipline that well anymore and workers here get aghast at what they see as unreasonably high standards of output for nothing. And it is for nothing sometimes, that is the funny thing. Just think of fast fashion.

I have always been pained by the quick turnover of stuff in the first world. I don’t wish back the old socialist times when furniture was for life and clothes (when you could get them) were expected to last you to the grave. But there must be a middle ground between the brainless over-consumption that doesn’t make anyone well-served, and the scarcity and oppressiveness of central planning.

At the very least people should give some thought to what they need or want before going out to buy them. And then appreciating that they’ve found it. We would all look better if we shunned the fashion industry in its current, brainless state and gave some thought to what we should be wearing in the first place. And the rising prices and brought-home production will be a splendid (if expensive) opportunity.

This crisis may result in the re-calibration of minds and the reconsideration of the value of stuff, just to name one obvious benefit. For an eastern European it had always been shocking how first world shoppers leave clothing stores with piles of clothing day after day – and that is before I heard that many of those clothes are never worn, or only once, like that’s normal. And those first world shoppers still looked awful because looking good requires thought and planning and knowledge of self. It won’t be achieved by impulse buying random things after work that are not cut to our size and are in last week’s color rather than a color that suits us.

Maybe it’s even chic to have so many things you can’t remember – but it came at the price of children sewing your clothes in Bangladesh and sometimes dying because the overcrowded factory collapses. Oh well, as long as you can get a pile of misfitting robes at Primark that even you, poor westerner, can forget you own. That’s so brag-worthy.

Every trend comes to an end and this supply-chain reorganization may be the end of the trend of fast fashion.

In the end, food and clothes will become more expensive after this. But at least we will learn to appreciate things again and the supply chains will get sturdier to withstand political attempts to help.

The post continues…

 

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