Vanity Fair: Inflation Tarnation! Inside the Supply-Chain Snafu That Could Wreck Your Holiday Plans

As headline-grabbing catastrophes go, it was a delight. A quarter-mile-long ship, decks piled with 18,300 containers full of capitalism’s miscellaneous desiderata, skidded out of control and jammed itself sideways in the Suez Canal. Nothing tragic—no deaths, no injuries—just a fender bender that brought the estimated 15 percent of international trade to a halt. Confusion reigned as hundreds of tankers and freighters hung fire at each end of the canal, wondering what to do next.

As content, it felt extremely relatable. By the day it happened, March 23, the world had been under lockdown for a year, and we were all slowly going stir-crazy. The end was in sight—those vaccine doses were finally starting to flow—but we were still stuck. We all felt a bit like that lonely digger, scraping at the sand under the ship’s looming bow, helplessly outmatched but doing the best it could.

At the same time the mishap had kind of a snow day feel to it, the sense that the tedious obligatory course of things had been suspended for a while. For once the rich—the ship owners, the insurers, the global supply chain guys—were taking it on the chin while the rest of us ate popcorn. For seven days salvage experts flailed while economists fretted about the approximately $10 billion a day in lost trade. And then, before the episode turned boring, it was over. Working with the tides, tugboats hauled the Ever Given out of the sand and sent it on its way. Classic sitcom arc: Boat gets in a jam; boat gets out of jam; everybody learns a valuable lesson.

But as the world changed the channel, the Ever Given’s saga was just beginning. The ship was free from the sand; it wasn’t free from the 120-mile-long canal. It sailed scarcely 30 miles before Egyptian authorities ordered it to drop anchor at a widening called the Great Bitter Lake. A wrong had been committed, the Egyptians declared, and they deserved compensation. A billion dollars. So the ship was stuck all over again, this time until a payment could be negotiated.

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