I've been reading up on the npm left-pad fiasco, but I'm somewhat confused by how it happened. I think I have a misunderstanding of how npm actually works. If the developer of left-pad unpublished the package, I assume
npm install left-pad
When I run
npm install babel, left-pad is not bundled in babel but rather is expressed as dependency in it's package.json file. So npm then has to go find left-pad and download it as well. So if you were installing left-pad or anything using left-pad for the first time, you wouldn't be able to. While this means you're safe if it already exists in your local directory, the project would fail to build properly as soon as it is built somewhere else. For example, a CI server that does a clean build from scratch for each new changeset would fail to build any project that relies on left-pad. Or if you were checking out a project for the first time, or deploying it to a new server, you wouldn't be able to build.
This is simple to fix if you were relying on left-pad directly. Just write a replacement and update your code to use the replacement. But when it's required deep in your dependency tree, say by Babel, it's unlikely you can refactor Babel or other modules on your own to use a left-pad replacement. You'd have to wait for all of the various node module developers to update their modules with something else and republish.
It's not as apocalyptic as news articles made it sounds, but it is a huge inconvenience and throws a wrench in many systems outside of developer workspaces where left-pad was already cached.