Sunday, February 28, 2021

Book: The Box by Marc Levinson

Levinson, Marc. 2006. The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Princeton University Press.

As its name suggests, this book offers a history of container shipping, with a particular emphasis on maritime shipping, where containerization first took hold. I found many aspects of the book interesting and useful. Let me remark on a few here:

1) I sometimes mock the first U.S. federal training initiative, the Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA), because it was motivated in part by fears of job loss due to automation - in 1962! This book actually gives life to the origin of some of those concerns via its description of the dramatic drops in longshore employment in U.S. ports as containers and cranes replaced gangs of men loading and unloading "breakbulk" cargo. This transition is not really automation, as the cranes had human operators, but it very much is the large-scale substitution of capital for labor.

2) The tale of how standards got set for container sizes via interactions of shippers and governments within the context of various national and international standards settings institutions provides a reminder that politics, power (both economic and political) and personalities all matter for such exercises. Indeed, the story of this process could easily support a book of its own.

3) Also fascinating: the stories, separate for the east and west coasts, of how the longshoremen's unions reacted to the prospect and then the arrival of containerization. For those with rose-colored memories of the private sector trade union past, this part of the story provides helpful reminders of the days of massively inefficient work rules and crippling strikes, too.

4) For readers of a certain age, the text also rekindles fond memories of the costs created by the interstate commerce commission, which was fully captured by the industry it purported to regulate prior to its (surprisingly bipartisan) demise in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It is an academic book written by an academic, but it is written well and at a modest technical level. I very much enjoyed it.


Amazon book page

Hat tip: Ken Troske

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