Shipping Delays Prove That Sometimes a Glitch Is Just a Glitch

You know how it went. They made big promises: just go to the website, provide the information, and all will be well.

What actually happened was nothing like that. It’s true that many, perhaps most people did in the end manage to get what they sought, but millions found themselves frustrated and angry. Was this a disaster? That depends on which anecdotes you choose to emphasize. Will it have long-term consequences? Too soon to tell.

Yes, the great online-shopping screwup of 2013 provided an object lesson. Oh, wait – did you think I was talking about So, in case you didn’t know, there were a number of glitches with online shopping this holiday season, with Amazon, for example, failing to make good on many supposedly guaranteed delivery dates – and as a result, quite a few Christmas presents weren’t there when the reindeer took off.

The biggest bottleneck seems to have been U.P.S., which simply didn’t provide enough capacity, but it wasn’t the only one. Can’t the private sector do anything right? O.K., we all understand that things happen, and that sometimes they go wrong – especially when you’re dealing with something new, like the rapid growth of online shopping. But as the commentator Alec MacGillis recently explained in The New Republic, many pundits were quick to declare’s problems evidence of the fundamental, irretrievable incompetence of government, and as an omen of the Affordable Care Act’s inevitable collapse.

Strange to say, none of these people are making similar claims about U.P.S. or Amazon. I wonder why.

The Year of the Weasel

Just a brief thought about what didn’t happen in 2013, and what did.

What didn’t happen were the same things that didn’t happen in 2012, or 2011, or 2010: inflation didn’t take off and bond vigilantes didn’t turn the United States (or any nation that borrows in its own currency) into Greece, Greece I tell you.

What did happen was a significant change in what the usual suspects – the people who have been predicting soaring inflation and interest rates, year after year – were saying about their predictions. Did they admit to being wrong? No, of course not. But their excuses shifted.

Through 2011 and even through 2012, it was still mainly “Just you wait!” – inflation was coming any day now, or maybe it was already here but sinister statisticians were faking the numbers. In 2013, however, it became “I never said that!” – declarations that they had only said that inflation was a risk, not that it would necessarily happen, so the failure of inflation to materialize was no big deal.

This is, I’d argue, a significant development, because it gives us a new window into the nature of the disagreement. As late as 2012 it was possible to view this as a legitimate contest between rival models. But we’ve now seen that one side of the debate not only refuses to take evidence into account, but tries to dodge personal responsibility for getting it wrong. This has gone from a test of ideas to a test of character, and a lot of people have failed.