Top positive review
278 people found this helpful
Boxing in goods unleashes globalization: The world is not flat
on August 20, 2006
In "On the waterfront," perhaps the saddest point of the film is where Fr. Barry eulogizes K. O. Duggan, killed off by the mob. But Marc Levinson has located a larger villain, the real force that killed off so many longshoremen's careers: the standardized shipping container. While a highly trained crane operator working today's docks earns $120,000 a year, their numbers are few and few of them are former longshoremen or sons of longshoremen. And cargo handling costs have dropped over 90%. Yet this is only the start. The shipping container reduced spoilage, theft, insurance costs, delays, and the entire cost of going global.
Levinson's well-researched treatment of a seemingly pedestrian subject works effectively to show that the world is not flat. The original dust cover of Friedman's best-selling book shows a tall-masted ship going over the edge of the 'flat' earth, confirming flat earth society members' discarded beliefs but distorting and mischaracterizing globalization. Levinson's rich, detailed, data-filled work shows the stark difference between Levinson's work with The Economist and Friedman's with The New York Times. Levinson uses a thorough, comprehensive economic and technological analysis, while Friedman flies around the world with a consistent "gee whiz" attitude of surprise. Levinson traces multitudes of disparate events and finds common links where Friedman finds common links and illustrates them with cursory events. Levinson is an economist; Friedman is a journalist. Friedman mixes metaphors and hyperbole; Levinson mixes in a wide range of colorful characters and challenges. Levinson is an editor; Friedman needs one. People who want to understand the recent history, impetus and infrastructure of globalization need to read "The box."
Fifty years ago, maverick southern trucker Malcolm McLean devised a method for a quantum leap forward in the handling of cargo in transit. At that time, the process of loading and offloading of ships had not changed much in hundreds of years. Loose cargo, irregular, unpredictable and back-breaking work, light-fingered workers, corrupt stevedores, poor management, and mob-controlled unions were the order of the day and most orders changed on a daily basis. The workers probably suffered the most, but the hidden impact on global trade was severe as well. Some small and expensive products -- whiskey, watches -- could not be shipped reliably and safely when subject to massive pilferage. While containers started as a domestic solution, their global use worked miracles in reducing the costs of getting products thousands of miles, and not just on what came to be huge, fast new ocean sailing ships. Railroads and truckers participated in this transformation. Markets opened up. Ports like Felixstowe (England) and Singapore emerged rapidly, displacing older, intransigent ports. Military shipping in containers from America's west coast for the Vietnam War made return trips with stop offs in Japan a cheap, added source of shipping revenue. Cheap-to-ship Japanese products flooded America. Ports sprung up where investors and governments were willing to build cranes, re-build docks and dredge canals. Corrupt, inefficient labor could be bypassed and eliminated, no matter how powerful the union or onerous the contracts. Free trade multiplied.
Sometimes global revolutionary change is not sexy. It's not even computer-driven. Maybe the computer chip spurred globalization, but it was the container ship that made it possible. The idea is to make trade fast, reliable and inexpensive, not just to make the world flat. Containers are like computer chips; they hold lots of stuff in a well-organized fashion. Without the containers, the global transportation network would be running much slower and more costly than it does today. Levinson catalogs a history of shadowy billionaires, entrepreneurs, and a few enlightened governments (the demise of London and New York City ports under much less enlightened leaders is especially painful) that produced a true global revolution. This book is a greater tale of globalization.
I only wish Levinson had included some photographs and more drawings. Some of the technical and industry-specific language can be dry and hard to visualize through verbal descriptions alone.