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The global supply chain is amazingly efficient. So why did it break down?

Christopher Mims' new book, Arriving Today, takes a close look at the global supply chain, following a hypothetical USB charger from a Vietnamese factory where it's made to its delivery to a home in Connecticut. That journey traverses 14,000 miles and 12 times zones, and involves a complex network of barges, shipping containers, trucks, warehouses, robots and workers.

41:33

Other segments from the episode on January 5, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, January 5, 2022: Interview with Christopher Mims; Obituary for E.O. Wilson.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. You've no doubt noticed that one of the impacts of the pandemic is that it's just harder to buy stuff, not everything, but there have been price spikes and shortages of big-ticket items like cars and building materials, as well as products as common as toilet paper, Nutella and cream cheese. The shortages are due in part to disruptions in the global supply chain, a phrase few of us were using before last year.

Our guest, Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims, has a new book which takes a close look at the complex network of technology and people that make up that supply chain. He follows a hypothetical USB charger from the Vietnamese factory where it's made to its delivery to a home in Connecticut, a journey that traverses 14,000 miles and 12 time zones. It involves barges, shipping containers, trucks and warehouses, employing countless people, robots and miles of travel on conveyor belts. Mims examines the sophisticated technology and work rules that squeeze every ounce of inefficiency out of these processes and their sometimes punishing effects on the workers that toil in the system. Christopher Mims is a technology columnist at The Wall Street Journal, who has a degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology from Emory University. Previously, he was a correspondent and editor for Quartz. He's also been an editor at Scientific American, Technology Review and Smithsonian. His new book is called "Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door - Why Everything Has Changed About How And What We Buy."

Christopher Mims, welcome to FRESH AIR. You started researching this book, you know, beginning in Vietnam where this product that you follow was manufactured. And by coincidence, I guess, it was in March 2020, just as the pandemic was becoming a global threat. But you didn't set out, obviously, to do a book about these disruptions in the supply chain that have made so much news lately. You thought the supply chain in normal times when it functions as intended is a story worth telling. Why?

CHRISTOPHER MIMS: A big part of it is that there has just been so much change and disruption in the global supply chain in how things get from the factory to our front door. Obviously, a big part of that is e-commerce and Amazon. And so, frankly, if you want to look at how automation is affecting workers all over the world, I think there's no better place to look than, you know, delivery and warehouses. There's just so much transformation happening there. There are so many robots being employed, but it turns out you can't really tell that story without looking at the entire global supply chain because kind of laid atop that narrative is this centurylong change in where things are made and how they get to us.

DAVIES: Right. And with these disruptions, which you mentioned, not the disruptions of the pandemic but just the way things have been revolutionized in freight, transport and distribution, things are just so much cheaper to get long distances. You cite an example of codfish caught off Scotland. Tell us about this.

MIMS: It turns out that the cod that are caught off the coast of Scotland are shipped to China or Southeast Asia, where they're filleted because, of course, the labor cost is much lower there, and then shipped back to Scotland. Obviously, they're frozen along the way. So it's a journey of many thousands of miles because transporting that cod is so much cheaper than, you know, paying domestic workers to prepare that cod.

DAVIES: So we've got freight transport across oceans so efficient that I think you said it - you can send a television across the Pacific for a fee of - what? - a couple bucks.

MIMS: Yeah. I mean, before the pandemic, you could send a large-screen television, you know, in a shipping container port to port from China to the Port of Los Angeles for $2. Obviously, that's because you're sending it in a shipping container that's stuffed full of these televisions. Also, obviously, that cost has gone up substantially during the pandemic. But that, you know, for many years has been the norm. It's just that cheap to ship something, even if it's large.

DAVIES: All right. So let's take a look at this journey that you chronicle here. I mean, this USB charger, which you're kind of - is your metaphor for this product that's going to go all the way through the supply chain, is manufactured in Vietnam. Vietnam has a huge manufacturing industry, and a lot of stuff in China is - has moved to other places because labor is expensive and they have a huge market of their own. What's interesting, though, is that a lot of these manufactured finished goods when they're manufactured in Vietnam don't travel to port by rail or truck. How do they go?

MIMS: Well, Vietnam is blessed with, of course, a very elaborate river system. They don't have a lot of road and rail infrastructure, but in some ways they don't need it. So what happens in Vietnam is that there are a lot of factories where they finish goods, they stuff them into a truck or a shipping container, and then that is immediately put onto a small barge. And, you know, it only holds about 80 shipping containers, and a shipping container is about 8 feet tall and 40 feet long. And then those shipping containers are shipped down the river, down the Saigon River, to a port, which faces, of course, the Pacific Ocean. And there, they are transferred onto the oceangoing giants, the very large oceangoing shipping containers, which, you know, we've all seen images of.

DAVIES: People know that, you know, shipping containers have kind of revolutionized maritime freight transport. Give us a sense of their dimensions and the scale at which they are shipped. I mean, how big are these ships? How many containers can they carry? What does it look like?

MIMS: Picture the Empire State Building laid on its side. It's almost exactly those dimensions. I mean, the largest of them, the very largest, you can put four soccer pitches on their deck and still have a little bit of room left over. But you're talking about a vessel that, you know, from the water line to the top is 15 stories tall. And the biggest of them can carry, you know, 10,000 40-foot shipping containers. And it's their size, it's their scale, which makes shipping so cheap and so efficient because, you know, the more goods you're moving all at once because of the physics of, you know, putting them on a ship and moving them on the water, which turns out to be the most efficient way we've ever invented to move goods, it just drives the costs down by making these ships bigger and bigger.

DAVIES: Tell us a bit about the lives of crew members.

MIMS: To be crew on a modern ship that's moving shipping containers has jokingly been compared to, you know, being in prison, but it's only sort of half joking. It's like you're living in an office building that you can never leave. You're going to see sunset and sunrise, and they might be stunning, but you're sort of confined to the bridge, especially if you're an officer, you know, and your job is managerial and you're doing navigation. And, you know, if you're a so-called able-bodied seaman, you might be walking the ship doing repairs. But the other joke about this is, you know, become a sailor, travel around the world, see none of it because when these ships arrive in port, that whole process is so swift, so automated, you know, these ships can be turned around in as little as 24 hours. These sailors might not even have a chance to leave the ship when they arrive in port, and yet they might be in a six-month roundtrip journey halfway around the world. And so, you know, the life of a modern sailor is, you know, I think, in some ways, it's very lonely. They're not allowed to drink onboard. They're very rarely going ashore. It's strangely kind of an office job on the high seas.

DAVIES: Right. And the crews aren't big, right? You can have as few as 30 people running one of these container vessels.

MIMS: Yeah, you can have less than 20, I mean, at minimum, these ships - maybe a dozen people for a skeleton crew. But, you know, the size of the crews keeps shrinking even as the ships keep growing.

DAVIES: And lately, when you've had ships that have been unable to dock because of the backups at ports, are the sailors simply captive for weeks or months?

MIMS: They are. And, you know, it's one thing to be stuck at the Port of Los Angeles, you know, off the coast of California. I mean, that's unpleasant, and that can really throw a spanner into people's lives and livelihoods. But keep in mind that there are ports everywhere in the world. And, you know, at The Wall Street Journal, we have reported on sailors being trapped on ships, you know, sometimes for many months beyond what should be the end of their contract. I mean, this has really been a global crisis where crews can't get off these ships, not just because of the congestion but because of COVID and because of, you know, difficulty in traveling internationally as different countries shut down or open up or change their rules about who can come in. I mean, it's sometimes very hard to be a sailor who has one nationality and try to get off a ship in a totally different country and then fly back to your country of origin.

DAVIES: Wow, so they're just stuck for the longest time and with really no recourse?

MIMS: Yes. At its worst, it was - more than a hundred thousand sailors all over the world at sort of the most acute point of the pandemic were being held on ships beyond the end of their contracts. That has eased up to some extent and has gotten better. But, you know, it really has been a crew change crisis for a long time.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Christopher Mims. He is a science and technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal. His new book is called "Arriving Today." We'll continue our conversation after this short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Christopher Mims. He is a science and technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He has a new book about the supply chain, the container ships, truckers and warehouses that bring us the goods that we buy. It's called "Arriving Today: From Factory To Front Door - Why Everything Has Changed About How And What We Buy." When one of these massive container ships arrive at a port - you looked at the one at the combined port of Los Angeles and Long Beach - or they're adjacent ports there in California that handle an enormous amount of cargo. A ship that large has to kind of, in effect, parallel park at a dock. That's a very tight space. How does that happen?

MIMS: Yeah, these ships are so big now that in comparison to the ports that they're trying to park in, there's almost no margin of error left. And so any port that a ship pulls into anywhere in the world - it's standard practice that the captain of that ship is not allowed to bring that ship into the harbor because it's already tricky, no matter where you are. So a special harbor pilot who works for that port and knows it, you know, backward and forward is ferried out to that giant container ship or bulk carrier, and they have to very delicately navigate it into this port. And at the Port of Los Angeles and Long Beach, you know, that means initially kind of getting it into this shipping channel.

And then if they're kind of going up the river into the interior of the port, the clearances are just so tiny, so you have this ship that's as big as the Empire State Building, and there may be as little as 3 to 6 feet of clearance between the bottom of that ship and the bottom of the ship channel that it's traveling through. And then as it travels under a bridge - there's this particular bridge they have to go under - there may be as little as 6 feet or even 3 feet of clearance between the top of the ship and that bridge. And then on the left and the right, they have to be extraordinarily careful with their speed because this ship is displacing so much water that as it goes through this narrow ship channel, if they're going too fast or they're too close to one side or the other, any ships that are moored on either side, including, like, ancient World War II ships that are floating museums, will literally get ripped off the docks. It'll just snap the ropes holding them there. So, you know, the forces involved when you're shoving this enormous ship through this narrow ship channel are kind of unreal because it's displacing so much water that in its wake, this canyon of water has to sort of collapse back in on itself behind the ship.

And, of course, they have to do this while also directing, you know, tugboats that are helping them turn and steer the ship. And then for their ultimate destination, the harbor pilot, using nothing but verbal direction, has to tell everybody what to do in order to - just very kind of all at once and just at the right speed - parallel park the ship between two other ships alongside the shore. And, you know, there may be just a few tens of feet of clearance at the front and the back of this ship. And by the very end of this journey, you know, the ship's engines are off. Like, the ship is just kind of sliding sideways into this spot. And that's why these harbor pilots are - have to go through so many years of training in order to do this with such a giant vessel.

DAVIES: When these massive ships arrive in port, the goal is to get them out again quickly. They want to load them quickly. They want to unload them quickly. And you write a lot about how that's done, and it's, of course, these massive cranes that pull these containers off the vessel, and then they've got to get loaded onto trucks or rail cars. Tell us a little bit about how this works.

MIMS: So when one of these enormous ships, you know, comes alongside shore, these enormous cranes immediately swing out, and their sole job is to pluck the shipping containers off the ship and get them onto the shore as quickly as possible. And, you know, these can be automated, but generally this is a skill that still requires a human being at almost all ports in the world. And, you know, in the old days, the crane operator actually had to sit in the crane on this thing that was sliding back-and-forth with the shipping container under it. So it was all very dramatic. These days, it can be remote controlled. But they're trying to pull these containers off of the ship as quickly as possible and then get them into the yard, as it's called, as quickly as possible. And that varies a lot in terms of how it's done. You know, a lot of places, it's still done by humans with trucks that just move these shipping containers about, and then little cranes put them into stacks. But increasingly, that is being heavily automated.

So at the TraPac terminal at the Port of Los Angeles, which frankly is, I think, the future of all of shipping and ports in the U.S., after that container is plucked by the human-driven crane and dropped on the shore, everything is robots. So these spindly legged, wheeled crane things roll over and grab a shipping container, and then they wheel it over to another robotic so-called gantry crane, which is much larger, and it spans a huge block of shipping containers. And it picks the shipping container up, and then it puts it in just the right place. And then 24 hours a day, those robotic gantry cranes are grooming those stacks, which just means that they're sorting the shipping containers so that when the next ship comes in, the containers it needs are on top, or when a truck comes into the port because it needs to take a shipping container out of that port, the container that it needs is right on top. So it's constantly just sorting all of these shipping containers. And the fact that they're using robots allows them to do it in a much smaller space and more efficiently.

And so, you know, a modern-day port, it's like just a sorting facility for - imagine, you know, children's wooden blocks or something. And you want to make sure that the right block is ready exactly when you need it.

DAVIES: Yeah, this is amazing. I mean - and you can see video of this on YouTube. There's these things called AutoStrads. That's these robots on wheels, which are like 30 feet tall, right? And they loom over a stack of containers and pick ones up. And as you say, they need to be arranged in the right order because these containers are all going different places, and there are thousands of containers on every ship. So the job of figuring out what needs to go where and where it should be stacked so that it can be plucked in the right order - how is that done?

MIMS: That's all software. So the same kind of software that has to make decisions about, well, you know, what packet of data do I need to send next through your home Wi-Fi router so that you can stream this video - I mean, it's the same sort of problem, but instead of packets of data, this software is deciding, which shipping container do I need to move where and at what time? And because that shipping container is a discrete unit of matter, it's really like a packet of data on the internet. And the same principles and similar mathematics are used to figure out how to sort these containers, how to make sure that the right one is available at the right moment. And, of course, improving that algorithm by even a small percentage can mean a savings of many millions of dollars for ports. So there is this huge discipline of academics and engineers who do nothing but write software to tell all of those port robots how to most efficiently organize all those shipping containers.

DAVIES: Right. So the combination of the robotics technology and the algorithms gives you this - these things crawling around, as you say, kind of like ants. They all know where they're going somehow because of, you know, the algorithms.

Given these marvels of automation and speed, why are so many ships now stacked up outside the Port of Los Angeles? What's going on there?

MIMS: The short answer is that building more infrastructure for shipping of any kind, whether it's trucking or ocean-going shipping, takes time, and ports especially take decades if you want to expand their capacity.

So basically, Americans went on a shopping spree as soon as lockdown started, and we haven't really stopped since. And so we are ordering so much stuff, and we have transferred so much of our spending from services - right? - like hospitality, going on vacations, eating out, to goods that it has really jammed up the works of the global supply chain. And as soon as, you know, one ship gets delayed, there's just this cascading effect where more and more ships get delayed. And because they're all on these tight schedules where they need to be at the Port of Los Angeles today, but in, you know, two to four weeks, they need to be back in, you know, Shanghai or wherever, if they get delayed at the Port of Los Angeles, that delays all of their subsequent legs of their trip. So that congestion really feeds on itself. So a little bit of congestion can lead to a lot of headache.

DAVIES: I'm going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Christopher Mims. He's a science and technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal. His new book is "Arriving Today: From Factory To Front Door - Why Everything Has Changed About How And What We Buy." We'll talk more about the global supply chain after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN BUNCH AND PHIL FLANIGAN'S "ON A SLOW BOAT TO CHINA")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. We're speaking with Wall Street Journal science and technology columnist Christopher Mims. He has a new book about the global supply chain. He examines the relentless drive to increase efficiency in transporting and distributing the goods we buy and the effect on workers who toil in the ships, warehouses and trucks that get all that stuff to our doorsteps. His book is called "Arriving Today."

So once goods cross the Pacific on these massive container ships and get to the United States, a lot of it is moved by long-haul trucks. That's a problem. There's a shortage of long-haul truck drivers. Why is that?

MIMS: So we don't have so much a shortage of long-haul truck drivers in the United States as we have a burnout and retention problem. So there are three or four times as many people as are driving trucks currently have the license, which should allow them to drive trucks, which just shows you how many people tried that job and said, this isn't for me. Because more and more demands are being placed on these drivers, you know, especially throughout the pandemic because so much more material was being shipped, it's become a lifestyle that a lot of people just find completely unsustainable, right? If you are having trouble finding a place to sleep every night because there aren't enough rest stops, if you are on the road 21 days out of every 30, which is typical for a long-haul truck driver, you're working, you know, 12- to 14-hour days every day and you don't get to see your family but once a month or less, you know, that's a life that a lot of people don't want. And even though some of those truck drivers are getting paid a lot more, the ones who are just getting into trucking, they're not getting paid a lot. And so, you know, effectively, in some cases, they're making less than minimum wage.

DAVIES: Wow. And there are a lot of risks, too. I mean, there are obviously safety risks, but they don't get paid when the truck is being loaded or unloaded, most of these guys. You know, it used to be different. Decades ago, trucking, long-haul trucking, paid pretty well. And then the government deregulated it in 1980. I mean, I guess this is pretty complicated, but why did that end up driving down the earnings of truck drivers?

MIMS: Shipping by truck became much less expensive in the United States, but it also turned that job into a difficult form of piecework where the drivers are paid by the mile and the shipping companies, the truck transportation companies, you know, sometimes really struggle to make ends meet as the prices for the service they offer fluctuate.

DAVIES: I mean, the drivers and the small companies simply don't have the bargaining power to really, you know, command, you know, the revenue they'd need to make it a decent job, I guess. You spent a lot of time with a guy, a 51-year-old driver, Robert Gallard (ph). Tell us about that experience.

MIMS: So I was privileged to, you know, get to ride along on a long stretch of, you know, Robert's route, which of course it doesn't - he doesn't have a set route. That's the other thing about long-haul trucking. It's - you're literally just stringing together one job after another and trying to find loads at whatever destination you're at that will take you to the next leg of your journey. And, you know, we went on the East Coast in the middle of the winter, and it was a bit harrowing because we ended up driving through an ice storm. And the entire time, Robert is giving me this monologue about - you know, what's it like to be a trucker? What are the safety issues? I mean, one thing that I learned from riding with him is the reason there's so much room in front of a long-haul truck is not because he's opening up space for you to cut in front of him to get over a a lane or two. It's because they need more than a football field worth of distance to come to a full stop, and especially if it's rainy or icy or anything, those are incredibly dangerous conditions for the truck driver and for everybody else on the road.

So it is a - you know, I don't think that there's any such thing as unskilled labor in truck transportation because those drivers have to be completely on point, absolutely alert for all the hours that they're driving in a day - and, you know, that could be 11 or 12 hours - because if they make one mistake, these trucks aren't maneuverable. You know, they can't swerve. You know, if they have to stomp on their brakes, it's very likely that that truck is going to jackknife where the back of the truck swings around. And then you're going to have a massive, you know, possibly multimillion-dollar accident that involves multiple vehicles and even death. So they're aware of what's at stake every time they get into those trucks. And, you know, I think the overwhelming majority of those drivers are trying to be as safe as possible. And they're doing it, frankly, on what can be very little sleep or interrupted sleep. And, you know, they're doing it for weeks, months, years on end.

DAVIES: We are speaking with Christopher Mims. He's a columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He has a new book about the supply chain - ships, containers, trucks, warehouses. It's called "Arriving Today." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're talking with Wall Street Journal columnist Christopher Mims. He has a new book about the supply chain, how it functions, how ship containers and trucks and warehouses work together to bring goods to us. The book is called "Arriving Today: From Factory To Front Door - Why Everything Has Changed About How And What We Buy." Well, materials, they come on container ships, then they're hauled by trucks and eventually get to a warehouse of some kind where things have to be sorted and then eventually distributed. The USB charger, which you write about, has got to eventually get to its destination in Connecticut. And you write a lot about Amazon, which has a lot of huge warehouses with really impressive amounts of automation. There are, I think, 115 of these so-called fulfillment centers in the United States, where Amazon takes in a bunch of goods and some from - you know, from all kinds of manufacturers and suppliers and then stores them and then is going to, as consumers ask for them, send them back out. Give us a sense of how these fulfillment centers, these warehouses, functions and the kind of automation we find there.

MIMS: You go into this facility that is a million square feet, so it feels like the size of, you know, a very large sports stadium, and it is just full of automation. It's just miles and miles of conveyor, you know, robots of several descriptions and then just tons and tons of people embedded in this system, kind of gluing together all these - you know, what engineers call islands of automation. And, you know, it's just this incredibly sophisticated process. From the moment that goods arrive on the shipping dock, they have to be ingested into the warehouse, which means that human beings are scanning each one of these items, the - you know, the UPC code on it, and they are dropping them into bins, which are then carried by conveyor to human beings known as stowers. And so a stower is standing at a station, and they're doing it for 10 hours a day with a couple of breaks. All that that person does is - these bins full of goods arrive on one side on a conveyor. They're grabbing those goods, and they're stuffing them into these tall, soft-sided shelves, which are themselves on top of robots. And the software that manages this warehouse knows where every single item has been placed in any of those shelves atop any of those drive units.

So when you order an item - let's say it's a hairbrush or something - within 45 minutes, one of these robot shelves that previously had that item put on it - you know, and it could be as little as a days or a week ago - drives up to another human. It's doing that whole process in reverse. And that person is called a picker. And, you know, something pops up on a screen, and it's like, grab this hairbrush, which is on this shelf on this drive unit that has just been driven up to you. And so they're reaching in really quickly, taking the item out and just as quickly dropping it into a yellow bin, which then is carried away on a conveyor. And that is the heart of these automated warehouses. It's this symphony of humans working not just alongside machines, but really intimately with them. And so that means, of course, that the human has to work at the pace of the machine, and this is why we hear so many reports about people getting repetitive stress injuries in these jobs and high turnover and workers trying to unionize because the pace is dictated by software, and any individual stower or picker can be fed items at whatever rate the machinery is capable.

DAVIES: What the rate is is something that humans decide. I mean, the software doesn't decide that. And, you know, when you were describing this, you were saying that in order not to be written up, the standard is you have to be faster than the bottom 25% of the workers doing that job. Is that right?

MIMS: Yes. And that is, of course, a floating rate - right? - 'cause that's going to change day to day.

DAVIES: Right. But I guess that what troubles me about that is that essentially you're saying that by definition, 1 out of 4 of the workers is always underperforming. And they're being told it, and so they're naturally going to try to speed up. So I would just tend to create this constant pressure to speed up if you want to keep the job. God, it just sounds grueling.

MIMS: I mean, they have turnover above 100% at these warehouses, typically, which means that, you know, 100% of those workers on average are going to be gone after one year. So are there enough people for them to continue hiring? I mean, that's one reason that they have instituted these $3,000 hiring bonuses. And now, you know, wages are going up to at least $18 an hour for these Amazon workers in the warehouses. That attracts a lot of people. Sometimes it even attracts people to come back seasonally. But that's been Amazon's approach, rather than changing the pace of work.

DAVIES: You know, one of the most interesting parts of the book, I thought, was your description of a ride-along you did with a UPS driver, a woman who had been doing it for 31 years. What was the experience like?

MIMS: So it was really interesting to ride along with Jenny Rosado because she has, you know, more than three decades of experience, and she's older than I am. And I'm not completely out of shape. I mean, I run like anybody else, but I sit at a desk most of the day. And two or three hours into just her day of delivering these packages, which I did with her, I was already feeling pain in my knees and aches in different places, and she was just laughing at me, and she's like, you got to use the techniques. She's like, here's the handbook. Here's exactly the right way to, you know, open the door in the back of the truck and take the steps down to the door. And this is what you should be thinking of when you're walking up to the door. And for somebody like this, it's this military precision, you know, partly just to preserve their bodies. These drivers - I mean, they really describe themselves as industrial athletes, and they have to be in good shape in order to do this day after day consistently.

DAVIES: Right. And the company does a lot of training. And as you said, they have these very specific rules for how to do everything. She's stayed at this job a long time. It's not like people flee so quickly. What's the difference between this and some other companies?

MIMS: Well, UPS, you know, is a much older company, and all of their drivers belong to the Teamsters union. And the interesting thing about UPS is, of course, that company has thrived throughout the pandemic, and there certainly seems to be something to be said for having that kind of unionized workforce where the company is continually reinvesting in the workers. The workers are very loyal, and they just learn how to do their jobs better and better. And so they learn their routes. They learn their customers. And that's how they are able to pay much higher wages than these small delivery companies, which are subcontracted by Amazon or by FedEx, where the model is more let's take somebody who has less experience. Let's drive them really hard. Maybe they stick around. Maybe they don't. We can always hire somebody else.

DAVIES: Looking at kind of the whole supply chain, I mean, you get the feeling that what you're describing is a process that - you know, that is typical of industrial capitalism. I mean, right? I mean, competition drives companies to innovate so that they can cut costs and be more effective. And now with all of this modern technology and especially with the ability to monitor everything, I mean, it's just really effective at moving huge amounts of stuff cheaply, which is great for consumers. But it seems like, you know, it tends to depress workers' compensation and grind them down physically unless they have union protection or strong government regulation. How are we doing in these categories?

MIMS: Well, I think that one thing I learned in doing - you know, I'm a technology writer. My focus is always on, you know, what's the software and the automation doing to humans and vice versa? But what I really discovered was that so much of the way that this technology gets employed comes down to, well, what's the state of labor laws in the United States, you know? And frankly, those have been eroded a great deal over the past few decades. It's one reason that it's so hard for Amazon workers or Walmart workers or, until recently, Starbucks workers to unionize so that they gain more control over the circumstances of their work.

I do think that a little bit more power has returned to workers lately because we have a huge labor crunch. And this also explains why we have, you know, so much inflation right now. Fundamentally, goods cost more because it's harder to get them to us, and supply chains are really made out of people. As much automation as there is in there, if you don't have the people to run all of that automation and to work alongside it, you cannot move those goods quickly enough or in sufficient quantities, and their price goes up.

DAVIES: Let's just talk a little bit about the disruptions that we've seen since the pandemic. This is a big, complicated subject, but I'm sure you followed it. I mean, these problems are going to be with us for a while, do you think?

MIMS: I think that the supply chain problems we're having now, which are at the root of current inflation, are going to persist for a long time. And part of that is because we just have more demand for goods, and that seems to be, you know, persistent. And part of that is because we're just ordering more stuff online and we're ordering more stuff in different ways through e-commerce.

And the other part of it is that we live in a world now where it's not just about pandemics, right? This news gets missed because delta and omicron and all the rest kind of swamp it, but there have been all kinds of disasters - natural disasters, extreme weather, political issues - which have shut down ports and factories all over the world. You know, Malaysia got shut down - and this is a key link in the global semiconductor supply chain - because of COVID. That was months ago. Well, a lot of those facilities have been shut down again because of severe flooding in Malaysia.

So what happens is these single points of failure can get hit by all kinds of different disasters. And then you wake up tomorrow and unexpectedly, lumber prices are really high or you can't get a new car because one microchip was missing. So I think that these intermittent kind of outages are going to persist for a very long time. It's kind of just the nature of global supply chains now.

DAVIES: Well, Christopher Mims, thanks so much for speaking with us.

MIMS: Thank you so much for having me.

DAVIES: Christopher Mims is a science and technology columnist for The Wall Street Journal. His new book is "Arriving Today: From Factory To Front Door - Why Everything Has Changed About How And What We Buy."

Coming up, we remember pioneering evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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