A good way to get people talking, in this lingering pandemic era, is to ask whether they have tried to rent a car lately. Even if they haven’t, they have likely heard stories, perhaps about largely empty lots at the Atlanta airport, where customers were forced to compete in what the actress Audra McDonald, in an angry tweet, called a “hunger games relay,” or about the man who told the Los Angeles Times that he had booked a compact car to take his kids to Disneyland only to be directed to a van that “reeked of cigarettes and marijuana.” But most of the stories are more quotidian; the common elements are long lines, high rates, few choices, and mysterious references to “supply-chain issues.”
What are these supply-chain issues, and why, more than a year and a half into the pandemic, do they keep popping up in so many corners of life? The shortage of rental cars—as well as used and new cars—isn’t expected to let up until at least next year. Last week, the Park Slope Food Co-op, in Brooklyn, sent an e-mail to members explaining that certain types of pasta could be out of stock; other purveyors are having trouble getting chicken wings. At times, it’s been oddly hard to come by plumbing fixtures, construction materials, salad dressing, and even some new books. Remote work and schooling have added to the demand for tech products, contributing to long waits. Most items are, ultimately, available, if at a higher price; during the past year, the Consumer Price Index has risen about five per cent, double the percentage it rose in the year before the pandemic.
Americans are not facing Soviet-style empty shelves, or having to scrap for the basics. In aggregate, we are hardly in a condition of scarcity. Still, supply-chain trouble suggests that something is off with the way we’re operating in the world, and that we don’t yet know the extent of our vulnerabilities. The issues can also be a serious impediment to a broader economic recovery.