walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

_The Box_, Marc Levinson

Subtitled: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

Levinson is an economist whose ability to write history is amazing. That's not a common trait of economists (<-- weaponized understatement there) or, for that matter, anyone else. I may buy his A&P history next, just because.

I bought this book because when it came out, the reviews were uniformly positive, and it seemed like the kind of thing my husband would enjoy, and it connected peripherally to a lot of the reading I was doing at the time in rail networks and rail history, and intermodal in general. I didn't read it myself, because it was published in 2006 and my life was kind of busy. By the time things were settled down somewhat, I had a kindle and was mostly reading on that.

The central figure of the origins of container shipping and this book was Malcom (spelling explained in the book) Mclean. He started out in trucking, switched to boats and never really looked back. For all that Mclean invented the container ship and the world we live in, he did not succeed in creating the seamless intermodal world we are still building now (not knocking him for it -- no one could have surely, altho his efforts in Vietnam gave a sense of the possible future, by contracting for end to end shipping). In the hands of a lesser author, Mclean's character would have taken over the tale; Levinson ably balances the idiosyncratic and ambitious man with the physical and economic realities of the world he acted in.

Levinson starts with a compelling description of what it was like to ship cargo before containers: the timelines, pilferage, hard and dangerous labor, how factories and longshoremen both were highly motivated to live and work as close to the docs as possible, the long standing conflict between those who loaded and unloaded ships, and everyone else, the politics of the port cities, etc. He shows how the end of WW2 made available, cheap, boats that could be converted to move containers. He does not spend time on the changes in the steel industry during this time frame (and they are kind of important but _way_ out of scope), or the growth of oil. Instead, inexpensive fuel for boats and inexpensive materials for the boxes are treated as a given.

Containers do several things. Like just about everything else in the middle of the 20th century, they make it cheaper per unit as long as you are willing to run a whole lot of units. They saved money by clearing up the port bottleneck: once you can load up the container and truck it around, you no longer have to have your factory located next to the docks. You also can pay a very different rate to have that container loaded, because you can have your own people do it, rather than deal with the dock workers and their complex work rules, unions, pilfering ways, etc. They saved money by reducing the amount of time spent in port, loading and unloading the ship, so the ship could move on to the next port. They ultimately made possible Just In Time inventory systems, reducing the overhead costs of keeping inventory. As insurers recognized the reduction in damage and theft to items being shipped, there was savings all around on insurance.

Over the longer term, they compressed the world, as the subtitle notes. One of the oddest bits of the book occurs when RJ Reynolds in the late 1960s/early 1970s has a lot of cash on hand and is staring in the face of increasing domestic regulation and a shrinking market at home. They wanted to diversify, to become one of the conglomerates characteristic of the age, and Mclean sold out to them so he'd get money to build more container ships. And thus, ironically, the bad habit of the blue collar factory worker became the instrument of the end of factory jobs through outsourcing. Altho not right away.

Mclean was imperfect, and in a particular way: he tended to optimize blindly. For a guy who created massive, longstanding change based on many stages of effects, he guessed wrong big on oil prices. Twice. He got caught out building super fast ships just before the oil crisis. And then he got caught out building super slow fuel sippers just before oil got real cheap again.

His biggest successes occurred when he looked at the world around him, saw how it worked and concluded that he was needed to Fix It. The chapter on Vietnam is a real eye opener. The military invited shipping execs to Washington, "where they were shown film clips of sailors lowering cargo nets by rope and asked for advice. When Malcom McLean saw the film, a colleague recalled, "[h]e got obsessed with the idea of putting containerships into Vietnam. He was back and forth to Washington, talking to people, and they told him there isn't anything you can do in Vietnam.""

Of course, the problem of container ships is you need special port facilities to realize benefits from them: huge cranes and a lot of space, mostly, but also significant organizational capacity to manage the containers moving in and out and making sure you don't sink the boat loading in the wrong order. Container shipping got into computers early, in a big way. New ports were built, and ""The port congestion problem was solved," the army's history of 1967 declared triumphantly." And since Sea-Land was making money on one leg, the backhaul was essentially pure profit.

Levinson tells the stories of West Coast, East Coast and English unions and how they wrestled with the changes brought by containerization. It would be incredibly easy to viciously denigrate unions and unions leaders when telling these stories. Levinson does not succumb to the temptation. He remains even handed and fair minded throughout the discussion.

I grew up in Seattle. Seattle, like many port cities, converted its older docks in an effort to revitalize a derelict area that had once been packed full of people and stuff. When we went down to the piers to go look around the shops or go to the Aquarium, my father told stories about the past, and, like young people everywhere, I mostly ignored those stories, hanging onto only occasional details like the eye popping salaries he claimed the longshoremen made running the cranes further south in the container port that had utterly replaced the piers we now came to for recreation (partly from reading this book, partly from reading other things, I now know that the eye popping salaries he quoted, like nearly everything he had to say about unions, was true). Levinson's book gave me a chance to really see the change happen that my father saw happen as a young man. And it gave a vivid backdrop to efforts around the country to revive derelict waterfronts with recreation, shopping and restaurants. All those waterfronts died at basically the same time, for the same reason.

Best of all, this book explained something that I've been scratching my head about for a decade or more. Whatever the hell happened to SeaLand, anyway? Those containers were everywhere when I was a kid, and then suddenly, I was 30 and that name was vanished as if it never existed, replaced by Maersk, mostly. My first wedding was officiated by a gentlemen who worked as a VP for Sealand -- I couldn't have imagined it all, could I? Whenever an economic segment commodifies, companies -- even big ones -- come and go with great rapidity, and it can be hard to understand why if you aren't in the industry during those years. Levinson manages to make it at least as accessible as a synopsis of a relationship-heavy novel or soap opera.

I can't recommend this book enough. It is a great read, an amazing story, and it explains so much of our world and why things changed when they did and how they did.
Tags: book review, economics, history, non-fiction, politics
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