Josh Friedlander'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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it was ok
bookshelves: economic-history

In the introduction the author recalls telling people he was writing a history of shipping containers only to be met with stunned silence. What more boring topic is imaginable? But since the book came out, containers are in; in art, architecture, history, and even computer programming. Levinson argues that the container's importance as catalyst of globalisation may have shaped the modern economic landscape more than any other factor, although it's hard to corroborate - the book is intentionally written without quantitative support, perhaps owing to the paucity of data.

The core story is in many ways a neoliberal parable, with technological innovation and the irrepressible entrepreneur Malcolm McLean overcoming corrupt and inefficient dockers' unions, who wish to oppose progress even as their jobs become less and less relevant. But Levinson, a former Economist reporter with a fairly eclectic background, is too good a historian to paint things only one way. In a detailed - too detailed? - history of negotiations between the longshoremen's union and port authorities in San Francisco, a deal was struck whereby a tax on the new shipping containers would pay to make up for lost jobs, paying people for eight-hour days until retirement and preserving their pensions, while reducing the amount of new hires. Automation thus actually brought about better conditions (less physical strain, and fixed instead of provisional work), though ultimately there would be fewer jobs. And It was less fun - the romance of the docks was gone for good, with famous port towns replaced by large, factory-like ports in little-known cities. (A rare bird this: a labour history written by a neoliberal!)

Not just shipping jobs, either: the great decline in American manufacturing, and some of the politics of our moment, can be traced to the evisceration of shipping costs, which drastically shrunk the planet. In the global, hyperefficient market, there is room only for a few large players, and most port cities - and shipping lines and manufacturing industries - will lose. Today's behemoths are globe-striding conglomerates such as Maersk (formally Danish) and Mediterranean Shipping Company (Swiss). Previously shipping company were national and often regulated and subsidised; the US still has on its books the Jones Act, which requires ships trading between US ports to be American built and crewed, and it's unlikely to be repealed anytime soon.

There are definitely some tedious parts in this book (an entire chapter on ideal box size and design!) But I'm glad I read it: it tells the history of an unsexy, little-recognised, low-margin industry, that is intimately connected to every product we buy.
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Reading Progress

January 28, 2020 – Started Reading
January 29, 2020 – Shelved
January 29, 2020 – Shelved as: economic-history
January 29, 2020 – Finished Reading

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