Chris's Reviews > The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

The Box by Marc Levinson
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's review
Nov 13, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: history

"The Box" is interesting for many reasons. First, is the fact that the book's subject, the shipping container, catalyzed the downward spiral of transportation costs that allowed for the great increase in international trade that came to define the latter part of the 21st century. While this was the initial draw for me, it may be the least interesting aspect of the book.

"The Box," at its core, is not about the shipping container's role in decreasing shipping costs (though that's necessarily a part of its story); rather it is a treatment of shipping in 21st century America, and how the idea of automating much of the shipping process through the use of standardized shipping containers came to fruition, in all its "fits and stars."

It is a worth a read simply for the history it provides of American shipping, with the competing interests of the unions (namely, Longshoremen and later the rival Teamsters), the shipping companies, the port cities, and the national politicians and regulators. I found these sections so interesting that I will be picking up a book on the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey in short order.

Part of that story how those interests respond to a technological innovation -- the box. First, the longshoremen object that that it will disproportionately hurt them: a segment of American workers who had carved out a niche of manual labor where they could extract higher wages than the typical manual labor job. Then the regulators and rail and trucking companies would complain that the lower prices the shippers could then charge were anti-competitive business prices. Finally, the shipping companies themselves would see their own profits dwindle as shipping capacity finally began to meet demand thanks to the new innovation. These sections could easily have come up lame, but Levinson appears to do a good job at providing a holistic take (to this outsider). For instance, he contrasts the reactions of the union bosses on the Pacific and Atlantic seaboards, as well as the attitudes of port cities like New York City and Newark. There's much to glean from these comparisons now that we can see how these attitudes shook out.

Given the current climate of worker dislocation, it's worth taking 278 pages to recall a recent technological innovation that had a large impact on American labor while also carrying large societal gains.

If that doesn't you, read it for the story of how a great idea turns into reality (much less straightforward than our Cinderella fairy tales). Or read it for the interesting dynamics of the state, competing transportation interests, and unions in 21st century -- and see how they ALL got it wrong in important ways. Or simply read it to find out why Newark eclipsed NYC as the major eastern port and why Hong Kong and Singapore now eclipse them all.

Fascinating stuff.

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