The first thing that struck me about the impact of the shipping container was the public policy impact on it. Before the shipping container, shipping, trucking, and railroading were heavily regulated by the ICC. Rates were set not only according to weight and distance, but also according to contents. Thus, the cost of shipping 1000 pounds of tires would be different than, say, 1000 pounds of grain, and not just because of density differences. This apparently goes back to the complaints made by shippers in the late 19th century, and made sense to regulators in that era. Also, prior to the container, shippers were allowed to charge less than truckers because ships took longer. So if a ship already had a stated rate for, say, wheat, between two ports, truckers were not allowed to charge less (or something like that - Levinson didn't attempt to explain the intricacies of ICC regulation). Further, shipping between American ports was restricted to American flagged ships, and international shipping was heavily regulated and subsidized - to qualify for the subsidy, you had to use American built ships, and the subsidy supposedly helped make up for the more expensive American crew. One final government involvement in the era just prior to the shipping container's introduction: many of the ships currently in use in 1956 were WWII surplus ships, built on the cheap and available for next to nothing. It was relatively easy to get into the business, as very little capital was required, and ships could ply from port to port picking up freight as they went.
Enter the shipping container, 1956.
But wait: the container requires different infrastructure. The story of the shipping container is also the story of ports where governments chose to support the companies investing in the container. In New York City, the story is governed by the decisions of the Port of New York Authority (now the Port Authority of New York), which was looking to expand its bureaucratic territory. The piers on the New York side had all the business they could want and politicians to defend that turf. The only reason they remained viable was the fact that the ICC required railroads to charge the same for freight delivered on either side of the port, in effect a requirement to throw in the trans-Hudson part of the journey for free. That was not trivial, since it involved either removing freight from trains and loading it on barges, crossing, and then re-loading into warehouses to wait for a ship.
Much of the history revolves around boy genius Malcom (not Malcolm, he dropped the second l to differentiate from his father) McLean, who started in the trucking business. Shipping something from a factory via truck to a railroad and then (via truck again) to a port, loading it on a ship, and reversing the process at the far end cost plenty. It cost time in transit, storage, and management; it cost labor at each change of mode; it was extremely expensive because of pilferage and breakage because of the frequent handling and the subsequent insurance; and of course the shipping cost money. Malcom realized the problem and the potential money to be made from rationalizing the shipping process.
The first container ships required their own cranes because standard dock cranes were not capable of lifting the containers, much less taking advantage of their standardization and the potential savings in ship loading times. Thereafter, however, the cranes became part of the port infrastructure, along with rail sidings, truck terminals, deeper and wider ports, and computer controls. The industry, in other words, became more capital intensive, and some of that capital came from state and local governments. Those who made the commitment, such as the Port Authority in New Jersey and Port Elizabeth, became the winners, while those who didn't, such as New York City, did not.
The government did not only take sides in the wars between technologies and shipping companies. As it became clear that automation was going to cost not only cushy jobs, but real ones too, the various unions found themselves at odds not only with shippers, but with governments as well. The City of Los Angeles chose sides when longshoreman at first refused to unload Matson's shipping container ships; the city threatened to take over the port and make their jobs civil service, prevented by law from striking. The Federal government stepped in repeatedly on the side of shippers against the East Coast union strikes. Eventually, the Longshoreman's unions on both coasts struck deals with shippers, trading generous contributions to retirement and unemployment funds in return for acceptance of the technology and more productive work rules. I'm not sure which side I come down on in that dispute: yes, there were aspects of the trade that sound cushy, such as rules that allowed each of the two teams working a ship to take a half day off with pay, and the day laborer aspect meant that senior union members could work or take the day off as they desired. On the other hand, the corrupt day labor culture enabled organized crime and allowed rampant pilferage to persist, not to mention the fact that jobs were described as incredibly dangerous and literally back breaking. In the old paradigm, workers had to live in slums near the docks to make themselves available; today, the crane operators are guaranteed a regular 40-hour-per-week job, and can afford to live anywhere, but have to get permission to take off. In any event, government was neither impartial referee nor friend of labor in these struggles.
So this ends up being a very complex story in which government starts out standing against change in the status quo that had persisted since roughly the 1920s, and then steps in to tip the playing field toward the shipping container. Levinson argues that the shipping container may not have been the only factor, but it certainly was *a* factor in accelerating the globalization of the economy. Before the shipping container, it was extraordinarily expensive to ship anything overseas; today, it may be less expensive to ship goods overseas by rail and ship than across the state by truck. Remove time and distance as factors or advantages, and suddenly labor costs become the more important factor.
Two final factors radically altered the trajectory of shipping. The first was Viet Nam. The Army suddenly found itself in a situation where it needed lots of supplies shipped in to a place with no infrastructure or railroads. McLean was the man on the spot, winning the contract by offering to build all of the necessary port infrastructure. The remarkable increase in efficiency forced the federal government into the pro-container camp, but also had an unexpected effect. With the Army picking up the ship's entire journey, westbound and eastbound, but only shipping freight west, this left Malcom with a *pure* profit opportunity: ships returning from Asia in the late 1960s with no cargo. A stop in Japan for loads of televisions and automobiles solved that "problem". Incidentally, by rationalizing shipping by making it predictable and fast, the container contributed to the development of the inventory-free manufacturing method of Just In Time.
The other final factor was the phasing out of the WWII surplus ships and the phasing in of dedicated container ships in the middle of the first oil embargo era. The shipping industry thus completed the transition from labor-intensive to capital-intensive. The enormous ships, some of which no longer fit in the Panama Canal, have to keep moving just to keep paying for their own financing. The cost of shipping plummeted, and the size of ships continues to expand. The Molucca Straits have overtaken the Panama Canal as the limiting factor on size.
Because of the plummet in shipping costs, the resulting increase in dependence on shipping, the pressures of the oil embargoes, and the changes in finance and capital requirements, the shipping industries were "deregulated" in the late 1970s. That deregulation was, of course, not complete. Levinson notes some exceptions, and I found that some of the rules were still in effect when I tried to ship something to Hawai'i a few years back.
Marc Levinson cites W. W. Rostow's "Stages of Development" argument early in the book regarding the importance of the railroad to American and English development, noting that the container is a modern equivalent in global development. Rostow in fact made two claims: one, that the railroad was essential, and two, that government investments were also crucial. Levinson's history of the shipping container would seem to support Rostow's claim. Many of the Asian Tiger economies - Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Singapore - invested heavily in port infrastructure to bring the shipping container to their shores; they were literal cargo cults. To the extent that it worked, they have reaped the benefits.
But Levinson provides some counterexamples. England adapted to the shipping container very poorly, and to the extent that they did, it was because of a private port at Felixstowe; England has arguably done quite well for itself in the past 30 years despite missing both of the Rostovian requirements. Further, much of the investment in American ports was private, though government has also played a role. Finally, the Rostow argument only makes sense when you accept that people are unequivocally better off when they adopt capital intensity. Yes, the increase in measurable wealth is notable, but I am curious about the intangibles and the change in quality of life, pace, direct control of one's life that result from acceptance of the modern.
This book hits somewhere in between detailed Fogelian economic history and story-telling, so I gave it 4 rather than 5 stars. It is certainly more accessible than a dry investigation of the numbers, but does manage to highlight many aspects of the technical, cultural, social, economic, and political issues at the nexus of which was The Box.