5.11.17

THE DIVISION OF LABOUR IS LIMITED BY THE EXTENT OF THE MARKET.

The more extensive the market, the finer a division of labour is possible.  That's generally for the good, but what happens when the s**t hits the fan?
Small, local producers, who make up for their lack of quantities of scale and their higher labor and environmental standards with shortened supply-chain, now see their competitive advantage systematically wiped out with each transportation network investment. With both political parties supporting massive infrastructure spending, the market has adjusted to this new reality by focusing on educating the next generation to be specialists with a worldwide market that can support even the narrowest niche skill-set, rather than generalists who can flexibly serve local needs.

Like a cavity that starts at the enamel and eventually hollows out a whole tooth, so too has the larger economy been hollowing out the local capability to be self-reliant.  On the surface, everything looks the same: we still have grocery stores, hardware stores, and all manner of services. What we don’t see is the fact that ownership and production of those things is no longer local. Global economies are finding more and better ways to replace local capabilities with alternatives that require us to rely on distant, disconnected companies using efficient supply-chain deliveries. Even our own two feet have been replaced with cars as we have redesigned our cities to replace the 20 minute walk with the 20 minute drive. The result is that cities and basic needs are physically spread out to the point that most of us are reliant on the products and deliveries of the global economy to gain access to basic needs.

So when do we notice this hollowing out? As long as goods still stock the shelves and we can easily access them, why does this phenomenon even matter? The answer is simple: we might not always be able to rely on these global supply chains, particularly in a real crisis when it matters most.  As gas stations and grocery stores rely on multiple deliveries daily themselves, should the supply chain be interrupted for an extended or unknown period of time, such as in a wartime situation, it would not be long before the products we rely on disappear.
That might be a case for maintaining a bug-out bag and stockpiles, and establishing neighborhood watches.  As I noted previously, there is enough embedded knowledge of the technologies of the 1870s or the 1920s that such a disruption isn't going to bring back the aftermath of the Thirty Years War.

Cities are, however, particularly vulnerable to deliberate and focused sabotage, and a modicum of preparation might be wise.  "Just as the huge militaries of the early 20th century were vulnerable to supply and communications disruption, cities are now so heavily dependent on a constant flow of services from various centralized systems that even the simplest attacks on those systems can cause massive disruption."  That the majority of the world's population now lives in urban areas (and correspondingly relies for its food and fuel on the efforts of a relative few) makes rendering the supply networks antifragile a desirable thing.  To the extent that the cities and supply networks are themselves emergent, rather than the fruits of Intelligent Design by Wise Experts, their chances are better.

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