17 September 2004


International conflict is always a question of priorities, even at home. It's not just that actors have to be prepared to accept that they won't get their "wish lists" in negotiations; it's that they can't. Today's Post includes a tip-of-the-iceberg essay related to antiterrorism (as distinct from counterterrorism) that should really, really disturb a lot of people.

In the United States we have 361 river ports and seaports. Every year we get 50,000 visits from 8,100 foreign ships. Every day 21,000 containers enter the United States. We can verify the contents of only about 4 to 6 percent of those containers. And it would require only one rogue container to bring commerce to its knees.

Imagine what would happen if a biological, chemical or some other kind of weapon arrived in one of our harbors. Every U.S. port would be affected as authorities worked to determine the extent and the source of the threat. Global trade could practically be shut down. And we don't have the systems in place to get our seaports up and running again. Our airports were operating a few days after Sept. 11. Reopening seaports would take substantially longer.

Retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart don't have giant warehouses brimming with inventory that can keep the American public supplied if trade is shut down. Even major manufacturers such as General Motors obtain some of their components overseas. Their inventory arrives daily in shipping containers, just in time to replenish stock or enter the manufacturing process.

M.R. Dinsmore, "Make Our Ports Safer" (17 Sep 04) (emphasis added).

If nothing else, this demonstrates another market failure in contemporary business practices. Because it is more "efficient," most US industries (and retailers) have embraced "just in time" inventory management. Of course, that assumes that the logistical pipeline will remain full. Mr Dinsmore's essay should show just how fragile that assumption is. Remember, too, that it's not just "consumer" products like automobiles that lie in this shadow; much "war materiel" also has parts that originate elsewhere. To pick something utterly trivial, the last set of grade insignia I bought (to keep my reserve uniforms up to date while I was still in the reserves) was "Made in Mexico." Although the military effort won't come to a halt if the supply of metal oak leaves and bars dries up, particularly since military uniform stocks usually are not on a just-in-time basis, that should give someone with even a dull imagination some pause.