The Baltimore Accident and Other ‘Supply Chain Crises’ That Keep Not Happening

Salvage crews remove wreckage from the cargo ship Dali after the collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in the Patapsco River on April 10, 2024, in Baltimore, Maryland. The bridge collapsed after being struck by the 984-foot ship at 1:30 a.m. on March 26 after it lost power. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Getty Images)

One month ago this Friday, the Dali cargo ship crashed into Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key Bridge, resulting in the bridge’s collapse and the tragic death of six people working on it. Given the stunning visuals and the unfortunate loss of life, the incident understandably captivated the nation for days. But it also spawned a litany of hand-wringing about widespread damage to our supposedly brittle, globalized economy. 

The day after the accident, for example, the New York Times’ Peter Goodman proclaimed that the “wayward container ship” yet again “shows world trade’s fragility”—and thus serves as a highly visible example of “the pitfalls of relying on factories across oceans to supply everyday items like clothing and critical wares like medical devices.” His NYT colleague Paul Krugman was less hysterical but nevertheless wrote a week later that, “Supply chains are making me nervous again” and warned of broader economic harm. The Washington Post dinged the accident as a result and symbol of “rampant globalization” and openly worried about these disruptions causing “big problems” economically. These outlets certainly weren’t alone in their worry. And social media, as you can imagine, went even further.

In one respect, this consternation never made much sense. Sad as the incident may be, the Port of Baltimore is relatively small—just the 17th largest in the nation and significantly smaller than nearby ports in New York, Philadelphia, and Virginia. On the other hand, the port is economically significant in narrower ways: It is the nation’s 10th-largest port for dry bulk commodities, handles 28 percent of all U.S. coal exports, and ships the most automobiles in the United States (about 850,000 per year). If April 2023 numbers are any indication, the port’s closure cost it more than $6 billion in two-way trade this month alone.

That lost economic activity is of course bad for the Port of Baltimore and the many people and companies that directly rely on it. Rebuilding the Key Bridge, moreover, will certainly cost lots of time and money. However, a month later it’s increasingly clear that those dire warnings of broader economic doom were totally unjustified. If anything, this latest supply chain non-crisis is, like several others before it, a testament to the resiliency of our relatively open and dynamic global economy and the millions of people who participate in it every day.

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