We now take overnight package service very much for granted, as well as our whole transportation system.
The end of the UPS strike is a good time to reflect on transportation in America in very general terms. The country had to go virtually "cold turkey" on overnight shipments for three weeks while UPS, which was doing very well financially, was deciding how these very good financials were to be allocated within the family.
If you recall the beginning of the strike, there was a lot of discussion about how harmful the strike would be to the economy. Economics professors even calculated that the strike would take percentage points off the growth of the GDP, which is pretty serious damage. We heard repeated references to the Taft-Hartley Act, which allows the President to order management and labor to take a "cooling off" period if the strike's effects were causing a national emergency.
A national emergency? Because the new hammock from Lands' End will take three days, instead of one or two, to arrive?
Now, we're not making light of people who use overnight package delivery services. There are medical purposes, legal requirements, just-in-time inventory practices, and a host of other reasons for which a cheap overnight service is enormously beneficial. UPS, FedEx, and other courier services have successfully made us a nation of overnight junkies.
And we really do take this overnight delivery service for granted. The UPS strike made us realize that we take our entire transportation system for granted, because it works so well so often. The U.S. is unique in the world in having such a strong infrastructure, which has played a major part in our economic growth.
The rest of the world is taking a long time to catch up, and in some cases taking a long time to realize the importance of an efficient transportation system. Only recently has Europe been able to manage continent-wide truck traffic without numerous border checks and burdensome paperwork. Much of the rail system in Spain uses a different gauge track than the rest of Western Europe.
One of the (many) internal contradictions in Soviet Russia was that the Kremlin didn't want to allow citizens to move easily around the country, and deliberately kept roads few and poorly maintained. The concern for control and security made transportation hugely expensive and put a significant drag on the economy. Only in the last few years has it been common practice to mark roads and highways, and to make road maps widely available. The saying used to be in the Soviet Union: "If you don't know where the road is going, you shouldn't be driving on it."
The mainland Chinese government is also wrestling with this issue. The Chinese leaders realize that effective transportation of goods is essential for economic growth, but that would also mean much freer movement of the people. The thought of building a highway system that would allow one-billion people to slosh around the country like water in the hold of a leaky ship must give them nightmares.
Latin America is many years away from integrating its diverse nations into a single transportation network. Africa has many political obstacles to establishing freer transportation links. Without a doubt, the U.S. has led the way in showing that to get a healthy economy, you need good highways and railroads.
America's transportation success, of course, came at a cost. We had to be willing to cover a huge proportion of land in our cities with asphalt, and put up with smog in cities and along freeways. We had to be willing to see the same stores and fast food restaurants in every last corner of the country.
But imagine for a moment that we had never invested in the highway and interstate system. Imagine that the maximum trailer length was 30 ft. and that the effective speed limit, because of poor road conditions and the lack of interstate highways, was 45 mph. Imagine that manufacturers and retailers needed to keep months' worth of inventory on hand, tying up all sorts of capital, and that it took months to clear out the old stock and get in new parts or the latest goods.
Compared to what we have now, that really does sound like a national emergency.