Feature 06.29.2022 5 minutes

Trucker Nation

Low angle view of driver sleeping in truck seen through windshield

Our supply chains reveal the spiritual desolation at the heart of America.

When China released the COVID-19 virus onto the world and the United States fumbled to respond, American supply chain professionals did not experience fear of the unknown so much as déjà vu. We saw in the pandemic another iteration of the sick, dysfunctional China-U.S. trade relationship.

America’s lockdowns suppressed the physical, in-person labor crucial to productive activities like natural resource extraction and manufacturing. Meanwhile, the federal government’s relief efforts were, well, characteristic: vertiginous money-printing and massive subsidies to pharmaceutical companies.

The result was an over-medicated, passive population paid to consume more Chinese plastic—the cheap, semi-disposable consumer items we call “goods,” which are really better described by the word “stuff.” Americans, thoroughly propagandized by social network algorithms controlling the flow of advertisements onto our phones and into our minds, were treated like lab animals. China wanted us to buy more, so we did.

First there wasn’t enough stuff, and then there was far, far too much. Business-to-consumer e-commerce deliveries spiked first in March 2020, according to UPS. Next the insatiable hunger for stuff moved upstream, elevating trucking demand, then intermodal rail volumes, and finally pulling obscene, staggering mountains of stuff out of Asia and jamming America’s ports, most dramatically in the summer and fall of last year. At one point, nearly one hundred container ships loitered in San Pedro Bay, waiting to dump their cargos into the clogged arteries of America’s transportation networks.

America never “built back better”—instead we became even more codependent on China for our material comfort and psychological well-being than we were before the pandemic. U.S. “goods” imports from China totaled $504 billion in 2021, far above 2019’s $449 billion.

When we reflect on why we bought so much, there’s no “there” there—no intentionality or agency at the bottom, no purposeful decision-making, no deliberative policy. Instead, we discover only an abject, twitchy, flocking digital swarm responding to external stimuli, addicted to clicking ‘Buy Now’ until the money’s all gone. And now it may be.

Big Broker

It’s true that the artificially-juiced “goods” spending of the past two years created a boom in the American transportation sector. Trucks weren’t in the right location, and there weren’t enough of them, and pockets of urgent demand suddenly bubbled up and dissipated in a kind of uncanny stochastic randomness, completely out of step with the seasonal patterns that trucking carriers built their networks to serve. Rates went to the moon.

Few people are aware of how shipments are assigned to trucks, and why trucks move certain loads from one place to another. There are, of course, very large trucking carriers like the publicly traded Knight-Swift, with something on the order of 18,000 tractors, that secure high-volume annual contracts with the largest U.S. companies. But big fleets control only a small fraction of the industry’s total capacity—the rest is a long tail of small carriers that don’t have relationships with major customers and rely on intermediaries to find freight for them.

Freight insiders know that the spot market, where trucks can be hired for day-of pickup, is where the action’s at. That’s where things get weird. The trucking spot market resembles nothing so much as an extremely volatile commodities market, complete with high-frequency pricing engines, floors of traders—called “freight brokers”—strung out on Adderall or worse, shouting into their headsets, and relentless managers cracking the whip and telling their underlings to get their calls up, end-of-month is almost here.

Although spot rates are mostly driven by the balance of supply and demand in major markets like Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Atlanta, they can be affected by anything: hurricanes, agricultural harvests, bottlenecks in other modes of transportation, and the rhythms of the retail inventory cycle. The only people who can typically decode the spot market, and make money from it, have an unusual combination of data skills, aggression, and shrewdness, something between a Wall Street stockbroker and a used car salesman.

Trucking rates on the spot market blasted through the historically normal level of about $2 per mile to nearly $4 per mile. That was the national average, but for many routes the rate was $5, or $6, or whatever the trucker—typically an owner-operator—thought he could get that day, depending on how hot the market felt and how desperate the broker’s voice sounded. So, for once, the truckers made money. Naturally, the brokers ended up making more.

The brief window of healthy operating margins for trucking companies has already closed, thanks to the Biden Administration’s disastrous energy policy, which sent diesel prices to historic highs nearing $6 per gallon as I write. Today, many owner-operators are running their tractors for less than their operating costs, even if they don’t know it yet.

The glut of “goods” in container terminals, in warehouses, and on the highway was never going to save the American trucker, anyway. Truck drivers are probably the most oppressed class in Current Year America. Electronically monitored hours of service regulations force them to waste more of their time off-duty, while they only get paid for loaded miles driven. Tracking technology integrated into their phones and cabs surveils not only the location and speed of the truck itself, but also records the driver’s movements, attention, speech, and expressions, endlessly scanning the driver’s eyes for any sign of lapsed attention.

Sleepless, diabetic drivers are effectively forced to subsist on a poisonous truckstop diet sold at marked-up prices that has left them with a life expectancy of just 61 years, compared to the average American—no paragon of health—who can expect to live 78 years. It’s not uncommon for truckers to expire in their trucks, and there’s even a charitable organization of drivers who transport their bodies back home for their funerals.

Will autonomous, self-driving trucks finally put the last nail in the coffin of the American trucker? Who’s to say? Billions of dollars have already been invested in this autonomous technology, but the physics involved in safely piloting vehicles with a gross weight of 40 tons at highway speeds in inclement weather requires a level of computer vision and AI decisioning that doesn’t yet exist.

Meanwhile, the truck driver remains a window into what’s left of the American soul: sick unto death, hated by the regime, under continuous surveillance, pulled to and fro by algorithms ultimately constructed by the Saudi and Chinese limited partners of venture capital firms, constantly reminded of his own obsolescence, waiting to be replaced.

Up from Globalism

There are a few concrete steps the country could take to strengthen the resilience of our supply chains and ameliorate the exploitation of truck drivers. Representative Andy Levin’s (D-MI) Guaranteeing Overtime for Truckers Act, currently in committee in the House, would pay truckers for their time and incentivize warehouse facilities and distribution centers to be more efficient.

The United States should also seriously consider restoring its own shipbuilding industry. The U.S. doesn’t have a national containership line, so when American importers pay high rates to move their goods across the water, those dollars end up in the hands of state-owned enterprises like China’s COSCO Shipping, which uses them to order more vessels from facilities like Jiangnan Shipyard near Shanghai, the very same facilities that are laying down China’s new aircraft carriers. In a very real way, the high rates American companies pay to containership lines to import goods into the United States end up subsidizing China’s naval shipbuilding capacity: this must end.

But beyond the supply chain itself, how can we cut the Gordian knot of compulsive consumption, unhealthy bodies, and alienated labor in America? It’s a complex problem whose solution likely touches on everything from agricultural policy to education reform, but I think the basic spiritual resources to tackle these issues are already present in an inchoate state.

Emerging trends like the creator economy, the new emphasis on embodiment (whether that means yoga, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, scientifically-optimized sleep, or raw egg nationalism), and the profusion of artisanal handicrafts available in farmers’ markets and Etsy stores offer hints of the way forward. The energy generated by these communities hasn’t coalesced into anything definitive yet, but there are glimpses of a new ethos. Imagine an American society where the higher pleasures of making authentic, beautiful, useful objects with our hands and bodies has replaced the dopamine junkie’s fixation on consooming more Funko Pops and Marvel movies.

A widespread revival of cottage industry and a 21st-century Arts and Crafts movement may sound far-fetched, but there’s at least one industry I can think of that’s been transformed by just such a shift in mentality: beer. Even as overall beer consumption gradually declined in the 21st century, the number of breweries exploded (growing 6x from 2008-16) and the number of brewery workers more than doubled from 2001 to 2017. Americans bought less beer, but they paid more for better beer, often made by locals running smaller establishments. American beer went from being tasteless corporate swill to a fuller-bodied, more authentic and richer sensory experience. Even better, the beer revival inspired legions of homebrewers.

Can the craft beer renaissance be replicated in the apparel, furniture, toy, and grocery industries? Why not? Everyday Americans should take up Paul Graham’s advice for startup founders: “do things that don’t scale.”

We’re probably already past peak globalization, as measured by the world trade to GDP ratio, which has never surpassed its high of 60.7% in 2008. Most of us grew up in a long period of intensifying globalization, call it from the 1980s to the 2010s, when goods generally became cheaper and more abundant: there was more stuff to buy and it took less time to arrive.

That trend is likely to reverse in the future. There will be fewer choices for most people, many goods will become more expensive, and they will be less readily available. The world will feel more regional and less global: supply chains, in other words, will contract.

America already has what it needs to embrace a new, post-globalization era, and it might even turn out to be the best thing for us.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

Also in this feature

to the newsletter