The container ship Rotterdam berthed at an offloading facility in the Port of Long Beach, Calif.
The container ship Rotterdam berthed at an offloading facility in the Port of Long Beach, Calif. - 
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KAI RYSSDAL: It starts right here -- the consumer economy -- on container ships like this one, the Rotterdam. Hundreds of ships just like it pull into American ports every day, each one crammed with enough consumer goods to fill thousands of tractor-trailers. The products inside are basically steroids for local economies all over the country.


Art Wong: Within about eight days or so, they'll be in the Midwest. So, many days after that, they'll end up on shelves of your department stores. And then the cycle begins all over again, and it goes on and on and on...

But how long can it keep going on? From American Public Media this is Marketplace. Friday, the 9th of November. I'm Kai Ryssdal. Great to have you with us, and welcome to Consumed -- a special series about the consumer economy here on Marketplace and half a dozen other American Public Media programs.

We've spent a year learning how the consumer economy affects us... How it touches more than just our wallets. We'll share our discoveries with you over the next nine days, as we explore how our economy, our culture -- even our selves -- are shaped by our insatiable appetite for stuff.

Shopper voice montage: I wanna get some jeans, a purple shirt... I need the iPhone like I need air... We wanted to be first in line to make sure we got what we wanted... If it doesn't last, it's OK -- it was only $6.

RYSSDAL: The object of that frenzy -- 40 percent of all the imports Americans buy -- comes in on ships like the Rotterdam through the waters off Long Beach, California. It's part of the biggest port complex in the country. More than 10,000 acres of nothing but commerce. You could call it the mouth of the consumer economy -- an economy that has only been getting hungrier and hungrier.

Art Wong's with the port of Long Beach. Art, you started here, as I understand it, 20 years ago. What was this place like back then?

Wong: Some of the shipping terminals, like the one we're going intom were just opening at that time, and we thought they were huge. They're about the size of Disneyland here. Now the trade has grown so much that this is a relatively small facility. We've got plans now to essentially triple it in size.

RYSSDAL: Are there any sign of it slowing down any time soon?

Wong: Not at all. every projection we've had for how fast the port was going to grow has turned out to be too conservative. There's only so much room here, the roads are only so big, the railroads can only handle so much cargo. We're not sure how we're going to deal with this doubling, or tripling, or quadrupling of cargo in the coming years.

RYSSDAL: Is there a way to get some kind of handle on the value of this place? What happens here every day?

Wong: We've had a labor dispute here a few years ago when the cargo stopped moving through here and within a week, the president had to order everybody back to the bargaining table because shelves were starting to empty. Parts weren't getting to the factories. The economy was coming to a standstill and they were starting to lay off workers.

RYSSDAL: Do you ever wonder how long the American consumer can keep it up; can keep just going and going and going?

Wong: You know, we're being stretched, and I turn to my kids every so often and I ask them, how many more pairs of jeans do they need? How many more handbags can they buy? And how much room to they have in their closets? And they keep going, and they keep buying, and the port keeps seeing more and more cargo coming through here.

RYSSDAL: Art Wong at the Port of Long Beach... Thanks so much for your time, Art.

Wong: You're welcome.

Read more stories from the Consumed series:

Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal