The Box

Three nights ago, I finished reading Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. My interest in it stemmed from a short post Paul Krugman wrote at the end of January, a post I quoted before in explaining what led me to William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. Krugman:

some commenters argue that the really transformative change came in the 19th century. There’s a lot to that.

As it happens, I’m rereading William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West — yes, on my Kindle, which has made a serious improvement in my life. And everyone with any interest in economics should read his account of the rise of the Chicago Board of Trade. Railroads changed everything. It wasn’t just the fact that stuff could be shipped further, faster, cheaper; the railroad also led to the replacement of concrete with abstract forms of ownership (the farmer owned a receipt for a bushel of grain, not a particular sack), standard-setting, futures markets, and on and on. If you’ve read Marc Levinson’s The Box, about containerization (which you should), it’s startling to see how many of the themes were prefigured by the grain trade, as standard-sized rail cars replaced flatboats, as grain elevators essentially began treating grain as a fluid rather than a solid, as conveyor belts replaced stevedores toting sacks.

Cronon found himself unexpectedly in the national news in late March when he wrote about political developments in his home state of Wisconsin and found himself the target of a far-reaching freedom-of-information request by the state’s Republican party. I wrote about this at the time and was inspired to download Cronon’s book to my Kindle. A couple of weeks later, I wrote that “the book was a thrilling experience. It is the most astonishing blend of history, geography, economics, and ecology that I can imagine.”

The Box went on my list of books to read some day. Some day turned out to be Father’s Day, when Joel bought it for me. It doesn’t have the scope or the beauty of Cronon’s book, but it tells a great story nonetheless, of how containerization changed world trade. This is examined at many levels, with Levinson examining the impact on port authorities and local governments, unions, the US military, cities, trains, truckers, manufacturers, national economies, and so on. Typically, each major subject is discussed in its own chapter. Union negotiations. Shipping goods to Vietnam. Developments on the East and Gulf coasts of the US plus the West coast. Developments in Britain, the rest of Europe, and Asia.

Many of the key developments coincided with my youth, as the Manhattan and Brooklyn port collapsed, with most of the action moving to new container terminals in Newark and Elizabeth, and as the longshorement’s unions fought their final big battles against modernization and automation. I was vaguely aware of this from reading the local news growing up, but I didn’t understand just how dramatic and swift the changes were. By the time I moved to Boston, as the book explains, its life as a major port had ended. Because it didn’t invest quickly enough in containerization, shippers could truck containers to New Jersey and have them put on boats there at lower cost. Similarly, the relative roles of west coast ports underwent a dramatic shift, with Oakland taking from San Francisco the dominant position in the Bay Area, but the Bay Area as a whole losing out ultimately to LA and Long Beach.

I learned when I moved here that Seattle was growing as a port because of containers and its location closer to Japan. As the book explains, shipping wasn’t a matter of getting goods to a port to serve the port’s local region. Rather, the key was to make the ocean crossing and get the goods off the ship as quickly as possible, to be put on trains or trucks for distribution nationally. But, as the book mentions in passing, Seattle took a big hit when Tacoma opened a new container port and stole a large part of Seattle’s business. This kind of story was played out all over the world. How London and Liverpool lost out to Felixstowe is an especially interesting tale.

I found a couple of annoyances as I read the book. Basic facts are repeated time and again, as if the reader is assumed to be inattentive. Or maybe the author or editor was. And the Kindleization of the book is not well done, at least for the first half of the book, with frequent breaks in the middle of words and occasional concatenation of the second half of a split word with the subsequent word. There’s no loss of meaning when this happens, but it stops the reader every time, even if just momentarily. Annoyances aside, the book tells a fascinating tale. And as Krugman noted, after reading the Cronon book, I couldn’t help but notice the overlap in themes between the two books.

Alas, re-reading Krugman’s post, I realize I have yet another book to read. Following the passage I quoted above, he goes on to say, “Add in the telegraph — the Victorian Internet, as another must-read book puts it — and it was an incredible change.” That other must-read book is Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers. I’ll add it to my list.

Categories: Books, Economics, Geography, History
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