stacks of cargo containers

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Wildfire Smokejumpers, Supply-Chain Omnishambles, and National Guard Drivers: Five Things That Made Us Smarter This Week

From decoding the economy to school bus platoons, we learned a lot over the last seven days

We’re living in a world awash with content—from must-read articles and binge-worthy shows to epic tweetstorms and viral TikToks and all sorts of clickbait in between. The Elective is here to help cut through the noise. Each week, members of the Elective team share the books, articles, documentaries, podcasts, and experiences that not only made them smarter but also changed how they see the world around them and, often, how they see themselves.

Satellite image of ever given ship stuck in the Suez Canal

Maxar Technologies

Remember when everyone was obsessed with the Ever Given being stuck in the Suez Canal and what it meant for how the world gets its stuff? Those were the days...

Crate(ring) the Global Supply Chain

One of the most transformative technologies of the modern world is a steel box. The shipping container, which didn’t enter widespread use until the 1970s, completely upended the economics of global trade. The efficient brilliance of putting stuff in a box—a standard-sized container that could be moved seamlessly from trucks to trains to boats and back again—dropped the cost of shipping to almost negligible rates. For a while, transportation was so dirt cheap that Alaskan salmon were flash-frozen, shipped to China for filleting, then refrozen and shipped back to the US for eating. Those astonishingly low transportation costs, combined with free trade policies and just-in-time manufacturing processes, created far-flung supply chains that operate on razor-thin margins to deliver goods as cheaply as possible to global consumers. “Supply chain management is the marvel of the modern age,” declared the Sydney Morning Herald back in 2007. (It’s also a college major!) “This giant balancing act is played out to near perfection by millions of companies. Breakdowns, bottlenecks and shortages occur but are anomalies.”

Then came the pandemic and the chaotic economic recovery. Now, the global balancing act that holds up our consumer economy is badly off-kilter, leading to what The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson calls “The Everything Shortage.” “Americans are settling into a new phase of the pandemic economy, in which GDP is growing but we’re also suffering from a dearth of a shocking array of things—test kits, car parts, semiconductors, ships, shipping containers, workers,” Thompson writes. “The Everything Shortage is not the result of one big bottleneck in, say, Vietnamese factories or the American trucking industry. We are running low on supplies of all kinds due to a veritable hydra of bottlenecks.” Americans are ordering so much stuff from China and other Asian manufacturing hubs that there simply aren’t enough shipping containers to go around. Cancellations of truck driver school over the last two years—you can’t practice parking a big rig over Zoom—have led to a shortage of drivers. And ongoing shutdowns of manufacturing plants and ports across the world have left giant cargo ships bobbing at anchor off the coast of California, Georgia, and Shanghai. “When the global supply chain works, it’s like a beautifully invisible system of dominoes clicking forward,” Thompson writes. “Today’s omnishambles is a reminder that dominoes can fall backwards too.” So if your holiday shopping turns into an omnishambles, at least you’ll know why. —Stefanie Sanford

Three headshot photos one next to another next to another

UC Berkley (Card), Wikipedia (Angrist), Andrew Brodhead/Stanford University (Imbens)

Half of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Economics went to David Card (left); Joshua Angrist (center) and Guido Imbens (right) shared the other half. I should've gotten it for finally balancing my checkbook! *this joke brought to you by the year 1989*

Econoclastic Scientists

Figuring out causation—not just the what, but the all-important why—is one of the core challenges of science. The impetus behind the scientific method is to find careful, rigorous ways of figuring out cause and effect, discerning whether a particular variable can be tweaked to yield a particular result. That’s hard enough in simple systems with straightforward rules, like chemistry; it gets wickedly hard in complex systems like economics, where a huge range of factors influence the things you might want to measure (unemployment, wages, productivity growth). It’s also hard to run controlled experiments in the world of economics, since you can’t exactly manufacture identical economies and manipulate variables one at a time.

What you can do, though, is get creative about identifying natural experiments, where real-world conditions create something approximating a control sample. “The key is to use situations in which chance events or policy changes result in groups of people being treated differently, in a way that resembles clinical trials in medicine,” explains the Nobel Prize committee in its award to the economists David Card (Berkeley), Joshua Angrist (MIT), and Guido Imbens (Stanford). “Using natural experiments, David Card has analysed the labour market effects of minimum wages, immigration and education. His studies from the early 1990s challenged conventional wisdom, leading to new analyses and additional insights.” Card has used natural experiments to tackle issues like minimum wage and immigration, but he’s also done a great deal of work on educational outcomes. In one of his most famous studies, Card and Alan Krueger examined historical patterns of segregation and funding from schools in North and South Carolina to conclude that school resources have a major impact on the educational attainment and life outcomes of students. These kinds of natural-experiment studies have gotten more rigorous as larger and better data sets, along with greater computer power, have become available. But even Nobel-worthy economics has its limits. “To some extent, interpreting the literature depends on the strength of one's prior expectations,” Card and Krueger wrote in that school-funding study. “Decisions about educational resources and reform have to be made in an environment of much uncertainty.” —Eric Johnson

Firefighter parachuting out of an airplane

August Gregg/flickr

An American smokejumper trains in Canada, November 2009.

Firefighting’s Special Forces

When we think of firefighters, it’s often in the traditional context of firetrucks and long ladders. But that’s the wrong image when it comes to controlling forest fires. That work requires helicopters and airplanes and giant foil-like anti-fire blankets. All of that and more has been deployed to combat the KNP Complex Fire, which is currently burning its way through California, destroying 87,468 acres (as of October 13) and is only 30% contained. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks—home to massive and ancient sequoias—are in the path of the blaze, and the largest tree in the world, the General Sherman Tree (52,508 cubic feet), is at risk. The BBC produced a short video showing clips of the blaze, which includes the efforts of smokejumpers to get it under control.

Smokejumpers are like firefighters—that parachute into forest fires. There are fewer than 420 smokejumpers in the world, and I recently found myself watching videos like this one documenting the intense training they undergo in order to save our most precious natural resources. They carry 90 pounds of equipment on their backs, jump into remote areas, and create fire lines to contain fires. In an effort to protect the invaluable sequoias, they wrap them in aluminum blankets to keep embers from getting inside the trunks and even climb them and hose them down as fire approaches. I was struck by the incredible courage and determination of these smokejumpers, as well as saddened by the seeming inevitability of these fires that appear almost constantly due to drought and environmental destruction. A few weeks ago, California signed a $1.5 billion Wildfire and Forest Resilience Package to reduce wildfire risk and improve the health of forests. As our environment continues to change, proactive climate legislation—and smokejumpers—has never been more important. —Hannah Van Drie

National Guard troops milling around a white mini-van

Lisa Gresci/Twitter

National Guard members train to assist with school bus routes in Massachusetts. If things get any worse, they're going to have to let the pigeon drive the bus! *this joke brought to you by my 3-year-old daughter*

Changing of the Guard’s Duties

Massachusetts districts have been struggling with a particularly acute version of the bus driver shortage flummoxing families and transportation managers at schools across the country. At the start of the school year, only 57% of busses in Boston made it to school before the start of classes. “School bus drivers remain in short supply across the state at a time when several industries are facing stark labor shortages,” reports WBUR. So the governor is calling in the troops. When I first saw the headlines that the National Guard was deployed to help ease Massachusetts’ school bus crisis, I had images of third graders climbing into Humvees or MRAPs for a memorable lift to class. Turns out it’s not quite that dramatic—the Guard is using minivans—but there are still more than 250 uniformed National Guard troops ferrying kids in the Boston suburbs to school.

The Guard has pulled overtime all across the country since the pandemic began. Domestic deployments in 2020 shattered the previous record set during Hurricane Katrina. More than 100,000 personnel fanned out to help with pandemic relief efforts, respond to civil unrest during racial justice protests last summer, and help manage a string of natural disasters from hurricanes to wildfires. The Guard was even deployed to help with cybersecurity during the 2020 election. “Over its nearly four-hundred-year history, the Guard has transformed from a loose collection of colonial militias into a well-trained and equipped force of civilian soldiers,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations. “As part of the pandemic response, Guard members have helped carry out coronavirus testing and contact tracing and delivered personal protective equipment and meals, among other duties. Many states have also turned to their Guards to assist with administering COVID-19 vaccines.” And now to get kids to school on time. Maybe they’ll get tapped to pitch in over the holidays, too, given supply chain woes are already delaying popular Christmas toys. Are Guardsmen trained to drive a sleigh? —Eric Johnson

Headshot photo of author Gary Paulsen

Newberry Award-winning author Gary Paulsen wrote more than 200 books, but for a generation of readers "Hatchet" and its main character, Brian, will remain his enduring legacy.

Back to the Woods

I’ve had some remarkable experiences in my 20 years in journalism: Hanging out with and interviewing Jeff Goldblum; talking with Tony Curtis about his career, including Some Like It Hot and my favorite movie of all time, Sweet Smell of Success; guiding two Scholastic Kid Reporters as they interviewed President Obama in the White House during the 2012 campaign. I cherish those memories and experiences, and I unhesitatingly place my 2017 interview with author Gary Paulsen in that company. We spoke in 2017, when I edited TIME Edge, TIME magazine’s digital publication for middle and high school students, for the 30th anniversary of his seminal young adult novel Hatchet. Like many people, the book was vital to my development as a reader, and over the decades its reputation has only grown as a gateway book—not to mention a comfort text, about a pre-teen boy struggling against forces of nature, human limitations, and grown-up fallibility. When I was told by the book’s publicist that Paulen, who didn’t do a lot of interviews, was willing to speak with me for a Q&A, I was exhilarated and terrified. And after we spoke, via a crackling phone connection—me in NYC’s urban jungle, he in New Mexico’s desert wilderness—I realized I was right to be excited but the nerves were totally misplaced. Paulsen, then 78, was kind, generous, and open, speaking about his own difficult upbringing with bracing honesty and lacing recollections from his accomplished life and career with an infectious, reedy cackle of a laugh. And it was shot through with the kind of wisdom that comes from a lifetime of experience and careful observation, as an author certainly but also a naturalist. “In the woods, you enter a state of primitive exaltation,” he told me. “That’s what happened to me with the forest. It was not duplicitous. It didn’t lie to me. It had no disdain. It is honest. It can be brutal, it can be hard, but it’s not cluttered like people are. You go back 30,000 years. You go back emotionally, intellectually, and, I think, spiritually.”

There’s a universe of experience, pain, understanding, and celebration in that recollection. It affected me greatly at the time, and it resonates even more today, four years and a family tragedy, pandemic, friends lost, and a fair amount of exaltation later. My experience with Gary Paulsen—both as a reader and in that brief time we spent together—is always close to the surface, but it broke through Thursday as news of his death, at 82, spread across the internet. I could hear his laugh and feel his generosity as if we just hung up a moment ago. I also felt stabs of regret. Our conversation went so well he invited me to his place in New Mexico—an offer I never took him up, thanks to a jump to a new job, the birth of my daughter, a jump to another job, then another, then the pandemic. I reached out to him a few months ago, to say hello and to check in. I never heard back, not that I really expected to. Still, greedily, I wanted more. But today, I’m thankful for the memory of that conversation (and the audio of it!), to say nothing of the literary legacy he left behind for generations of readers to discover and get lost in—a forest of books to transport them emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. —Dante A. Ciampaglia