A big boat stuck in the Suez Canal, catastrophically disrupting global logistics - it wasn't just predictable, it was inevitable. For decades, the shipping industry has consolidated into just a few companies, and ships got bigger - too big to sail.
As Matthew Stoller points out, in 2000 the ten biggest shippers controlled 12% of the market, today, it's more that 82%, and even that number is misleadingly rosy because of alliances among the megashippers that effectively turn them into one company.
The Suez crisis illustrates one of the less-appreciated harms of monopoly: all of us are dunderheads at least some of the time.
When a single person wields a lot of unchecked power, their follies, errors and blind-spots take on global consequence.
The "efficiencies" of the new class of megaships - the Ever Given weighs 220 kilotons and is as long as the Empire State Building - were always offset by risks, such as the risk of getting stuck in a canal or harbor.
Despite this, a handful of executives were able to green-light their deployment. Either these execs didn't believe the experts, or they didn't care (maybe they thought they'd retire before the crisis) or they thought they could externalize the costs onto the rest of us.
Running a complex system is a game of risk mitigation: not just making a system that works as well as possible, but also making one that fails as well as possible.
Build the Titanic if you must, but for the love of God, make sure it has enough life-boats.
Monopolies are brittle. The ideology that underpins them is fundamentally eugenic: that there exists among us superbeings, genetic sports who were born with the extraordinary insights and genius that entitle them to rule over the rest of us.
If we let nature run its course, these benevolent dictators will usher in an era of global prosperity.
This is catastrophically, idiotically, manifestly wrong. First, even people who are very smart about some things are very stupid about other things.
Charles Koch took over his father's hydrocarbon empire and correctly concluded that the industry was being held back by a focus on short-term profits. He made a series of long-term bets on new production technologies and grew the business a thousandfold.
Being patient and farsighted made Koch one of the richest people in world history - and one of the most influential. He pioneered a kind of slow, patient policy entrepreneurship, investing in a network of think-tanks that mainstreamed his extremist ideology over decades.
And yet, this man who became a billionaire and changed the character of global politics with his foresight has managed to convince himself that there is no climate emergency.
That patience, foresight, and cool weighing of probabilities have gone out the window completely.
Smart people are often fools (so are regular people). History is full of them. Take William Shockley, the Nobel-winning inventor of silicon transistors who failed in industry because he became obsessed with eugenics and devoted his life to a racist sterilization campaign.
Moreover, fools sometimes succeed. Take Mark Zuckerberg, who justified his self-serving "real names" policy (which makes it easier to target ads by banning pseudonyms) by claiming that any attempt to present yourself in different ways to different people is "two-faced."
That is a genuinely idiotic thing to believe: presenting yourself differently to your lover, your parents, your toddler, your boss and your friends isn't "two-faced," it's human. To do otherwise would be monstrous.
But even when monopolists aren't idiots, they are still dangerous. The problem with Zuck isn't merely that he's uniquely unsuited to being the unaccountable czar of 2.6 billion peoples' social lives - it's that no one should have that job.
Monopolists all have their own cherished idiocies (as do the rest of us), but they share a common pathology: the ideology, popularized by Thomas Friedman and others, that "efficiency" is the highest virtue.
The whole basis for 40 years of tolerating (and encouraging) monopolies is the efficiencies of scale from consolidating power into a few hands, and the shared interests that arise from a brittle interdependence.
Who would go to war with the trading partner that controls the world's supply of some essential item?
This was always, predictably, a system that would work well but fail badly. Clustering the world's semiconductor production in Taiwan made chips cheap and plentiful, sure.
But then the 1999 Taiwan quake shut down all the world's computer sales. There are plenty of examples like this that Stoller lists: a single vaccine factory in England shuts down in 2004 and the US loses half of its flu vaccines.
Despite the increasing tempo of supply-chain crises that ripple out across the world, we have allowed monopolists to "take the fat out of the system at every joint," setting up a thousand crises among us and yet to come.
Bedding makers can't make mattress for want of foam. RV manufacturers can't get enough "air conditioners, fridges, furniture". Often, the pivotal items are obscure and utterly critical, like the $1 "flat steel form ties," without which home construction halts.
"For the want of a nail, the shoe was lost." We've understood that tightly coupled systems have cascading failures since the 13th century. "Resiliency" is inefficient - but only if you ignore what happens when brittle systems fail.
Every monopolist *necessarily* shares an ideology that elevates brittleness to a virtue. They must, because monopolies are brittle. One foolish mistake, one ship wedged in a canal, one delusive denial of climate change, and we all suffer.
Every monopolist believes in their own infallibility. They must, because to have someone as fallible as me or you in charge of the world's social media or shipping or flat steel ties is otherwise a recipe for disaster.
Of all the dangerous things monopolists are wrong about, this belief in their own inability to be wrong is the most dangerous.
Image: Copernicus Sentinel (modified)
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