Small Pieces Loosely Joined

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In her final New York Times column, Virginia Postrel explains how the shipping container, "as generic as the 1's and 0's of computer code," transformed the world:

When the first container ship set sail 50 years ago, businesses and regulators treated distribution not as a single process but as a series of distinct modes: ships, trucks and trains. Every time the transportation mode changed, somebody had to transfer physically every box or barrel….

Today, by contrast, "you can call one of the big international ship lines, tell them to pick up your container in Bangkok, which is not a port, and tell them to deliver it in Dallas, which is not a port, and they will make the arrangements to get it to a port and get it on a ship and get it off at another port and get it onto a train or truck and get it where it needs to be," [economist Marc] Levinson said….

In the container age, any city with good port facilities, including feeder rail and truck lines, can compete with any place in the same large region. Seattle can take business from Oakland, and Hampton Roads can attract shippers from New York. That heightens competition among ports.

In a postscript on her blog, Virginia notes that "today's fully integrated systems became possible only after trucking and rail were deregulated in the 1970s and maritime rates were deregulated (to very little fanfare) in 1984. Assumptions about transportation regulation have changed so radically that reading about the bad old days seems like science fiction." Some particularly perverse examples follow.

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  1. They also created opportunities for damage, mistakes and more than a little theft.

    Longshoremen and warehousemen did not suffer simply because of job cuts. They resisted by inserting featherbedding clause in their contracts for as long as they could.

    However their biggest loss came because of the reduced opportunities for pilferage from the sealed containers. Up till then everyone from the union bosses to the lowest stevedore counted on this important “income supplement”.

  2. A couple of years ago I had to ship about a ton of books and personal effects from central PA to the middle east. The 3-hour trip on a truck to the Port of Phildelphia cost me more than the 30-day ocean journey to the Gulf.

  3. this article was written 6 1/2 years ago “The 20-Ton Packet: Ocean shipping is the biggest real-time datastreaming network in the world.”

    also see “The Trucker & The Professor

  4. A quibble: Bangkok is in fact a port (although I doubt the Chao Phraya River is deep enough to take the big container ships).

  5. My father could go on and on about container ships and containers if you got him started. He was a merchant marine from the mid-Sixties until 1982, when container shipping started to really take off.

  6. Geotech

    Was he for or agin ’em?

  7. Geotech reminds me of an H&R thread a few months back about the navy being offended by the term “drunken sailors”. People forget that the term originated with commercial sailors, of which there are still many. I guess no one reads Joseph Conrad much anymore.

  8. And I suppose it’s easier to detect a dirty bomb hidden inside a standardized shipping container than inside any old random shipping container.

  9. For or against, I don’t really know, most of the stories he told me were about whores, getting high, getting drunk, and fighting. Every once in a while one of his old sailor friends would come by the house and that’s when they’d talk shop. He was a port engineer for a little while though, and anything that reduced the amount of union labor he dealt with was a good thing.

  10. …most of the stories he told me were about whores, getting high, getting drunk, and fighting.

    Sounds like pretty much every merchant seaman I ever met too.

    …anything that reduced the amount of union labor he dealt with was a good thing.

    I guess it depended where you were in the process.

    For the most part unions have always resisted labor-saving innovations because the reduced jobs and incomes. The interesting thing is that the longshoreman opposed containers because they would both reduce labor requirements and pilferage.

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