I realized I have a vehicle coming up for plate renewal and the associated state inspection. Great. Something to get done. I have time. I’m flexible, I can wait for it, whenever a time slot is open, I can drive by and “git 'er done.”
I called my preferred mechanic shop, inquired about a slot – any slot, no biggie – anytime this week? Nope. First opening is week of September 11, if I can drop it off and let them slip it into the work plan. Well, I want to wait for it. Okay, we can do 8:00am 9/13.
Mentioned this to a friend who said he has a dent repair needed on a vehicle and the same shop said quoted a November 29 start date back in early August. This is a well respected, independent shop that has been around since the early 1970s and is now run by the founder’s son.
In a different but related story, the local news ran a story last week about teenagers turning 16 camping out at a local DMV driver’s test office in order to nab one of the few appointments for a driver’s test, due to a shortage of state troopers available to sit in the passenger side with a clipboard risking their life to administer the in-car drivers test. Most new drivers are waiting between 30-40 DAYS to get tested. A quick google search shows this to be relatively isolated to my side of the state but seems to fit a larger pattern.
I mention these examples cuz they reflect what seems to be a new normal. The number of home projects or routine government administrative tasks one can decide to knock out on a whim shrunk considerably during the peak of the covid pandemic and is not returning to “normal.” There are many areas where this is likely a better optimization of economic resources. For example, most grocery stores that for some reason expanded to 24x7x365 day operation over the last 10-15 years have scaled back to 6am - 11pm type hours. Honestly, that makes sense. The value of paying a shift of cashiers and a manager to hang around at 3am made zero financial sense.
However, these shortages of both labor and materials are likely having HUGE impacts to most businesses every day. If you run a restaurant and your AC or freezer fails, you’re lucky if you can find a repairman to come quickly before your patrons flee and your food spoils. If the repair tech shows up and you need a major part, good luck finding it in stock where the tech can get to it to keep you in business.
If you run a contracting firm and a change on the job site requires an audible at the line and a trip to the hardware store for extra materials and maybe a new specific tool, good luck finding everything you need in stock with the quantities you need. If it isn’t in stock, your job has to defer that work, find another part of the project to work on to keep making progress, and your customer waits longer for completion.
These “hidden taxes” are embedded in plain site through pretty much every layer of the economy. In normal times, business might attempt to solve these problems via “expediting” things in the logistics chain. If local stocks of part A become unavailable, we’ll just overnight ship them from the east coast. Until the east coast doesn’t have any stock either. With manufacturing scattered across the globe, it is NOT economically efficient to shift the entire world cargo market to 747 freighter planes. Supply and demand have to be better balanced to allow slower shipping alternatives to work. And even that aspect is at risk. A story last week described how a lack of rain in Panama is backing up throughput of traditional “Panamax” sized ships through the Panama canal. The canal has locks for the traditional “Panamax” sized ships (895 feet by 105 feet and a 35 foot draft) and the newer, larger “Neopanamax” vessels. Both sets of locks use water from lake Gatun to drive ships up the path then lower it on the other side. However, the new locks on the Neopanamax route re-cycle about eighty percent of that water. The older locks recycle virtually none of it.
The result? Panamanian operators are reducing the number of transits for the older / smaller ship variety and reducing the maximum draft of those ships that do pass through. Total daily transits of the canal have been reduced from 36 to 32 daily, draft depths of ships have been reduced, limiting the amount of cargo per transit and existing ships – especially the smaller Panamax variety – are queueing up on both sides of Panama waiting for a smaller number of transit slots.
Why point out all of these interlocking forces? Cuz they’re all contributing to inefficiency, they’re all driving increases in prices and shortages of materials and goods and there is NO magic bullet any politician can tout that will cure these problems in a few years, much less instantly.