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Posted: 2020-10-23 23:30:20

I'd like to take a break from my usual socio-political commentary to address what appears to be a serious national issue: a pepperoni shortage. Yes, really.

I wanted to make pizza a couple weeks ago, but realized at the last minute I was almost out of pepperoni. Normally, we buy it in bulk from a restaurant supply store, and I didn't realize how low we were until it was too late. We made do with onions and other toppings for our dinner, but really … what's pizza without pepperoni?

As it turns out, the "new normal" may be pizza without pepperoni. A trip this week to the restaurant supply store revealed a distinct lack of pepperoni on the shelves. "Our warehouse is almost entirely out," apologized the cashier.

Shortages have been in the news lately. Pepperoni is just one of endless items in short supply. "Supply chain issues affect items from cars to fishing lures," blared a recent headline in a regional newspaper. The shortage of toilet paper and hand sanitizer has eased as manufacturing ramped up to meet demand, and the distribution of flour, yeast, garden seeds and aluminum cans seem to have finally caught up, but now other things are disappearing from stores.

Some of the current items people are having a hard time finding (besides pepperoni), or for which prices are skyrocketing:

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This is just a small list. What other deficiencies have you noticed in your neck of the woods?

What is causing these shortages? Many things manufactured in China are now unavailable; and believe me, a lot of things are manufactured in China. For many items made domestically, overwhelmed manufacturers experienced a lag time before they were able to ramp up production. For yet other items, sheer volume of demand outstripped supply (baking goods, sporting gear, bicycles, fitness equipment, home improvement projects). And this doesn't factor in all the panic buying that took place in the spring.

"People buying a lot more of some things than what they would normally consume and buying less of some other things, and what that does is creates what we call a bullwhip effect that gets amplified upstream in the supply chain and causes all kinds of chaos," explained supply-chain expert Daniel Stanton.

If shortages have taught us nothing else, it has highlighted supply-chain weaknesses we either didn't know about or ignored. How much manufacturing has moved overseas due to onerous regulations that made foreign production cheaper? How dependent are we on unstable nations for the goods we take for granted?

Shortages foster a sense of vulnerability. Just-in-time (JIT) inventory systems in stores might increase efficiency during times of abundance, but it leaves gaping holes and bare shelves during hiccups – and 2020 has been nothing but hiccups.

According to Business Insider: "These shortages and disruptions might even be good for the U.S. in the long run, according to Seckin Ozkul, a supply-chain management expert at the University of South Florida. The pandemic has been a giant, global experiment in how to rapidly diversify supply chains so that entire industries don't get cut off from raw materials just because factories shut down in China. … Now, manufacturers are getting more creative and resourceful in how they source their raw materials and create their products. 'We had seen regional, we had seen national disasters and destruction, but we had never seen a full global [disruption] at the same time – everyone shot down at the same time,' Ozkul said. 'So now we want to look at this so that the next time it happens we can be better prepared and we can actually take the necessary precautions so we don't see the impact as much as we see it now.'"

That's great. I'm glad suppliers are taking these precautions. But it also means people, at the individual level, had better take precautions as well – especially for vital items such as food, prescription medicines and other necessities.

But what happens if shortages go beyond the inconvenience of pepperoni-less pizza? What if shortages go beyond a lack of canning supplies or a scarcity of chest freezers? What if shortages extend into matters of life and death?

Deep down, people know the answer to those questions. That's why most – not all, but most – of the shortages have to do with safety (firearms, ammunition), food preservation (canning supplies, chest freezers), fleeing urban chaos and building a new life in a less urban area (lumber, appliances) and other means of keeping safe.

The thing is, shortages happen all the time; but what we seem to be witnessing is a fundamental shift in political responses and societal impacts. Many shortages are caused by business reductions or closures, and those businesses are being governed by the status of COVID-19. In other words, many businesses aren't permitted to reopen unless and until the coronavirus is "eliminated." But with rare exceptions, diseases don't work that way; therefore things aren't likely to go back to normal any time soon. That's a fundamental shift.

Having tasted the benefits of societal control, politicians aren't likely to let go of the power they amassed. Do you see the resumption of mass-gatherings (concerts, festivals, sporting events) any time soon? Do you anticipation the eradication of social distancing in the near future? Do you foresee the mask mandates being dropped? Neither do I. That's another fundamental shift.

And what happens when COVID-20 shows up? Or COVID-21? COVID-22? Will we be required to cower in our homes forever? Will businesses – including manufacturing – be forced to stay closed or reduce production to abide by social distancing standards for years to come? No wonder we can't find pepperoni.

This, folks, appears to be the New Normal. Eventually, pepperoni will find its way back onto store shelves, but then other things will disappear. And of course, if the Green New Deal ever gets implemented on top of things, shortages way beyond this will be the Newer Normal.

What a weird year this has been.


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