Global Gridlock

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Most people think the biggest threat to globalization is mounting economic nationalism and trade protectionism. That may well be true. But in a thoughtful and provocative article in the Harvard Business Review, George Stalk argues that globalization faces another threat - a looming infrastructure crisis that is creating huge bottlenecks in the flow of global products and services.

As supply and distribution chains have become longer and more complex, companies have begun to realize that increased logistics costs can reduce or even eliminate the benefits of manufacturing where labor is cheap. The congestion and bottlenecks of a transportation system strained beyond capacity compound the problem, making supply chains seem even longer and more unpredictable.

There's a lot of talk about improving transport times for people, but at this time of rapidly falling imports and exports, there's not much talk of increasing capacity for goods. High fuel prices are not the only issue here. It's also the other costs of congestion: higher cost of inventory for goods that are locked up longer in transit; the costs of uncertain, more variable transport times; and the inability to react to changes in consumer demand.

Stalk argues that while the crisis provides a temporary reprieve, the stimulus is not addressing this looming longer-run economic threat.

If pre-recession trends reappear when the economy recovers, lack of infrastructure capacity, in combination with rising oil prices, will constrain global trade and drive up costs. The U.S. stimulus package, with its focus on "shovel-ready" projects that quickly create jobs, will produce newly painted bridges and newly paved roads but is unlikely to address the capacity problem.

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Richard Florida is Senior Editor at The Atlantic and Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto. See his most recent writing at The Atlantic Cities. More

Florida is author of The Rise of the Creative Class, Who's Your City?, and The Great Reset. He is founder of the Creative Class Group.

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