Shenzhen Skyline 2015

Hoisted from the Archives: The Box That Changed the World (July 25, 2006): It is 40 feet long, 8.5 or 9.5 feet high, and eight feet wide.

It carries up to 29 tons in its 2,000 cubic feet of recommended available space – goods worth roughly $500,000 (or more) when sold at retail.

It, and what it carries, can be transported in a month anywhere in the world where there are suitable harbors, railways, locomotives, flatcars, truck tractors, diesel fuel, and roads.

It is the modern cargo container, and it is able to move non-fragile, non-perishable goods from any modern factory with a loading dock to any modern warehouse anywhere in the world for about 1% of retail value.

Indeed, it can be transported for a marginal cost of perhaps $5,000 – less than the price of a first-class airplane ticket, as Marc Levinson, author of the excellent The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, puts it.

All of this has happened since 1960 or so. Back then, the costs of international trans-ocean shipment for most commodities could easily amount to between 10% and 20% of retail value. The cargo container has changed everything.

When my family bought a German-made washing machine from a warehouse store in San Leandro, California, more of its cost was absorbed in the ten minutes the saleswoman spent telling us about it than in the entire journey from the factory in Schorndorf, Germany, to the loading dock in San Leandro, or in forklifting it from the loading
dock to its place in the serried ranks of washing machines which filled that corner of the warehouse. In the end, it cost to us of getting our washing machine to our front door was about eight times the cost of the machine’s voyage from the German factory to the warehouse where we purchased it.

The world is certainly not “flat,” as the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman believes. But, in an economic sense, it is extremely small for non-perishable, non-fragile goods. Every modern factory with outgoing volume large enough for container traffic and a suitable loading dock is next door to every modern warehouse with similar features.

Yet it is not the whole world that is so small, but only that part of it that is attached to the global container-handling network. Areas that lack the necessary infrastructure are still far away from the global trading system that carries high-end German manufactured washing machines from Westphalian factories to California warehouses for just a penny a pound.

For example, if your electricity is unreliable, so that you can’t count on being able to pump the diesel into the truck tractor, you are not attached to the network. If the volume of your production is too small to fill 2,000 cubic feet of space headed for a single country, you are not attached to the network.

Likewise, if the money to fix your roads was embezzled, so that nobody wants to risk their tractors on them, you are not attached to the network. If your courts function so badly that few outsiders are confident that what you say is theirs really is theirs, you are not attached to the network. If nobody has yet noticed what your workers can produce, you are not attached to the network. If your entrepreneurs cannot build organizations at container-scale without attracting politically well-connected extortionists, you are not attached to the network.

For any poor segment of the world economy, getting attached to the global container network is an immense opportunity. But it is an opportunity that requires that everything – infrastructure, scale, public administration, governance, and foreign knowledge of your production capabilities – work just right. And if you have not first built up the social networks that enable your workers and their bosses to know what kinds of manufactured goods would generate high demand in the rich post-industrial core of the world economy, it doesn’t matter even if you are attached to the global container network.

Many have written about how telecommunications technology is bringing about the “death of distance.” Indeed, nowadays, you can talk to anybody, anywhere. But it is the cargo container that appears to have brought about a more effective and – so far – more significant “death of distance.” For, in a commercial sense, at least, the goods we ship across oceans still far outweigh the words we chatter around the world.