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Scenes from the Supply Chain

REVIEW: ‘Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy’

• November 21, 2021 5:00 am

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In Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy, Christopher Mims announces his goal up front: to convince you of "this astonishing fact: You live inside a factory. We all do. And you are also a worker inside that factory." Although Arriving Today doesn’t quite end up making that argument, it paints a compelling picture of the elephantine supply chain that delivers products to our doorsteps. Needless to say, its publication is timely.

Mims, who by day is a columnist at the Wall Street Journal, maintains a healthy skepticism of the supply chain’s mechanization, and the ways in which the interchangeability of the system’s components have made jobs in the industry more punishing and alienating. His chapter on the cargo ship sailors who were trapped at sea for the better part of a year during COVID is especially eye-opening. But he balances skepticism with an infectious awe at the scale of the system. "90 percent of the world’s goods travel by ship," he explains, and as those ships cross the Pacific they sit "1.2 miles higher above the surface of Earth than the peak of Mt. Everest." Similar factoids dot the text, along with insights into the human-machine melding required to make the system work. Mims describes a ship as "a giant suit worn by its humans"; at another point, he rides along as a harbor pilot takes "total command of the largest mobile, man-made object on Earth," guiding it into its port resting place with inches to spare.

But Arriving Today also manages to capture the quirky, inefficient, and deeply human parts of the supply chain. As containers full of goods arrive in the Los Angeles port, they’re unloaded onto land by massive cranes, and then spend several days being "groomed," or shuffled around into more accessible stacks, by smaller cranes. After a local trucker transports the container to another distribution center, the goods are unpacked and enter America’s long-distance trucking ecosystem.

This world is riddled with strange structural inefficiencies: Despite being essential and in high demand, truckers are worked to the bone and paid little. Barely one-third of the 10 million Americans with a commercial driver’s license are working as truckers, a sign of the industry’s high turnover. Mims leads readers through the neon world of roadside truck stops and ably describes the murky regulations meant to protect truckers that indirectly endanger them. Logging devices, introduced to track hours and stop truckers from driving sleepy, end up increasing speeding from drivers without affecting the number of total crashes.

Although trucking is a messy business, things change dramatically when we arrive at Amazon’s warehouses. Over the course of the pandemic, Amazon increased its "frontline workforce" by half, crossing the million-employee mark before Mims’s eyes. The author describes the "fundamental Darwinian" workplace culture, where warehouse employees are constantly surveilled and compared with their compatriots. Mims argues that this system of "stack ranking" contributes to the high rates of injury (in some warehouses, four times higher than the industry average). Arriving Today is at its most winsome when Mims attempts to perform the physical exertions of warehouse and delivery workers and finds that "industrial athletes" display levels of strength, agility, and endurance far beyond the typical office worker’s capacity.

Mims got lucky with his timing: His narrative, starting with a tour of Vietnamese ports, begins right as COVID breaks out in China in 2020. As a result, he gets to interweave the usual workings of the supply chain with the distended turmoil of the pandemic. Mims is an able chronicler of the changes and keeps one eye on the broader historical context. "What America’s Rust Belt once was, that swath of productive enterprise stretching from Baltimore to the Great Lakes, places like Vietnam have become—only for the whole world."

If Arriving Today merits a complaint, it’s that it’s not long enough, and thus misses the chance to break down the world of policy around global shipping and trade. He hints at a number of fascinating rabbit holes without leading us down them: For instance, that the 11 major shipping companies are really just three "ocean alliances" that each share ships and containers internally. The timespan covered in the book ends just before the Long Beach bottlenecks that made national news.

There are a couple points where Arriving Today breaks down: Hitler and FDR are included in a list of "people whom history has mostly forgotten," while crossing the Pacific is "a study in contrasts." Mostly, though, Mims keeps his prose tight and focused on the people who knit the world of goods together: the Filipino and Ukrainian sailors flying Panamanian flags, weary American truckers, and Amazon warehouse workers ground down by "despotic Taylorism." Those human cogs in the great machine enable a level of consumer convenience unthinkable to our ancestors. Mims leaves it to the reader to judge whether that convenience is worth the cost.

Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door—Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy
by Christopher Mims
Harper Business, 336 pp., $29.99

Published under: Book reviews