Learning How Today’s World Works (& Doesn’t) Without Leaving Home

The truth is out there. But so are lies. This week, some pieces of the truth were emerging in a Minnesota courtroom. Here we pass that by with bowed head.

Other pieces, one being an enormous cargo ship, were emerging, or not, from the Suez Canal, and I can’t elide them. Or one piece in particular.

What I can’t avoid is that somewhere out there, but closer to the canal, I still believe —  is my bushing.

My what? Bushing. A small piece of machined metal. I think it would fit in my hands, maybe one hand. The cost should be between ten to thirty bucks.

It’s not really “my” bushing, though. It’s destined for our washing machine.

The device is a compact Haier washer/dryer combo, worked fine for eight years, til last December. Then it started making clanging noises, rocking back & forth, and finally the Fair Wendy shut it off before something melted down.

Okay, stuff happens. We called an appliance repair place; they’d come before, to fix the fridge. It took two visits: they had to order a part. But a few days later, as promised, they returned & got it done.

With the washer, it started the same: they tinkered & replaced something. But to finish, they needed a part. A bushing, for the tub inside.

They tapped a tablet, checked their shelves. It needed to be ordered.

No problem they said. A few days: they were in direct touch with the factory.

I knew this story: the “Just in time” system. Saves money in inventory & storage costs, and moves fast. Usually.

It had worked the first time. So okay.

But after two weeks, there was still no bushing, and the truth started to leak out.

And now it’s April, four months later. Still no bushing, no functioning washer. Trips to the laundromat. Hassles.

It’s not a crisis. COVID is a crisis. Police murders of George Floyd & so many others is a crisis.

But it’s a hassle. We’ve called, politely complained. Two or three times.

They said, we’ve  followed up. There are unexpected issues. Out of our hands.

But not off my mind. Like the Ever Given. In fact, that’s where I suspect my bushing is.

Either there, or in one of the 300 or so big container ships still jammed up in Suez.

That’s not certain, but much more than a fantasy. Here’s what I’ve pieced together about my bushing:

The washer company, Haier, is huge, and based in eastern China. It’s absorbed big chunks of General Electric. They’re used to the “just in time” thing.

But Covid. Last winter, the Communist Party said lockdown; they locked down, for several months. Meanwhile, orders  backed up and piled up. For things like bushings.

Then the Party said, Re-Open; they re-opened.

But backlogs were for more than orders. “Just In Time” means putting my bushing in one of those boxy truck-size containers, and moving it about 10,000 miles.  Moving it requires big trucks and bigger boats.

But both the big boxes & trucks were backed up too. Also scarce.
When the trucks get to a port, the boxes are stacked onto the giant boats, which chug out to sea at top speeds of about 20 mph, on journeys of up to 10,000 miles.

And as media watchers everywhere recently learned, the oceanic world can easily get very weird, and the huge chunks of world trade that crisscross it, including millions of items, from the biggest SUVs to gadgets smaller than my bushing, and their fates can be very delicate and fragile.

That’s  world trade, or the bulk of it. It’s progress, and the future. Only weirdos and a few independent reporters dare question its rightness.

One such renegade is the very independent London-based writer,  Gwynne Dyer. I’ve followed his work for fifteen years, and he’s top-flight and plain spoken. And here’s what he thinks of our “just in time” system:

Dyer: “Now that the delinquent megaship has been freed from the bottom, normal service will resume and 50-odd ships, bearing one-eighth of all the world’s international trade, will once again pass through the Suez Canal each day. Egypt will doubtless reconsider its decision to leave the southern third of the canal single-lane, and everybody will live happily ever after.

Well, no. Putting huge amounts of dispensable, low-value stuff on massive container ships only makes sense to accountants. The life cycle of most of the goods that the container ships carry is to be dug out of a hole in the ground, turned into consumer goods, shipped halfway around the world, and eventually buried in another hole in the ground.

Gwynne Dyer, independent journalist & columnist

The sole justification for this most extreme manifestation of globalisation is that the wage rates are lower on one side of the world than on the other. But it’s murder on the crews, mostly poor people from poor countries who aren’t even allowed ashore when the ships stop briefly in ports. And it’s hell on the environment, because almost all these ships are burning bunker oil.

Bunker (Heavy Fuel Oil – HFO) is the tar-like residue that remains at the end of the process of distilling and ‘cracking’ petroleum, after the lighter hydrocarbons like gasoline and diesel have been removed. . . .

The one way to cut maritime carbon dioxide emissions fast is to lower the speed of the ships: reducing a large ship’s speed by 10 per cent cuts its CO2 emissions by 27 per cent.

But the best measure of all, until a new generation of wind-driven cargo ships matures, is to cut the sheer volume of trinkets travelling by sea.

You can still have your cheap garden furniture, brand-name sneakers and plastic Easter eggs if you want, but make them closer to home and pay a little more. And put at least as much pressure on the world’s shipping industry for emissions cuts as popular opinion is already exerting on the aviation industry.”

What? Closer to home? Where our pay rates, even with our ridiculously low minimum wage are so much higher?  This guy Dyer must be a Communist.

Sorry, that canard canoe won’t float: it’s “Communist” China that’s at the epicenter of this vast swirling vortex of exploitation & pollution.

It’s great that the Ever Given was refloated & able to get moving. Media attention shifted rapidly to other items like the struggle for some kind of justice for George Floyd, and the rapidly sleazifying underage sex trafficking scandal around Rep. Matt Gaetz and who knows how many more rightist-Trumpian politicos.

But for at least a few of us news stragglers with special concerns, it’s hard to let go of the Ever Given. And for those with items like missing washer bushings at stake, there is a continuing trickle of shipping news. The more mainstream Felix Salmon of Axios  explains:

Axios: The Suez Canal is clear, but shipping is still broken
Felix Salmon

International shipping and supply chains are in rough shape, even without a container ship lodged in the Suez Canal.

Why it matters: The pandemic threw a wrench into the gears of a global network that was already struggling with oversized ships and unbalanced product flows. Given how long it takes for the system to recover from any kind of shock, the echoes of the Ever Given disruption are likely to reverberate for months.

The pandemic caused demand for services to plunge while demand for goods — much of which are imported by ship — spiked.

The sheer quantity of goods moving east across the Pacific already dwarfed exports in the opposite direction, and the pandemic exacerbated that trend. . . . The industry flourishes in times of predictability, and tends to come unstuck during moments of unpredictable demand.

Bottlenecks have built up, especially in Southern California, with ships waiting weeks to unload their cargo. Once they’re unloaded, they rush out of port quickly to allow a new ship in — so quickly that they often don’t have time to reload, leaving potential U.S. exports stranded on domestic shores.

Because the ships are so large, their maximum speed has been reduced to the point at which they cannot make up for lost time.
The bottom line: A system of small and nimble container ships could have recovered much more easily from the Suez delays. That’s not the system we have.

Expect U.S. retailers to continue to complain about shipping delays on earnings calls for the foreseeable future.

Reuters adds a couple of key details: “The [post-lockdown] import surge in the United States and elsewhere has led to a worldwide container shortage. Everything from cars and machinery to apparel and other consumer staples are shipped in these metal boxes. The factories that make them are mostly in China and many of them closed early in the pandemic, slowing down the rate at which new capacity was coming on stream.”

CNN was pithiest and most pitiless of all: “Global shipping was in chaos even before the Suez blockage. Shortages and higher prices loom.”

Fortunately, I didn’t order any garden furniture or plastic Easter eggs. But so much for my bushing.

And so much for the “Just in Time” myth. It should really be called “Jest in Time.” And this time, the joke is on me.

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