Sunday, December 07, 2014

Amazing containerization

Here is Scott Sumner writing about, among other things, our modern world. I liked this part:  
Did King Louis the 16th of France (who was probably the richest person in the late 1700s) have a lower or higher living standard than an average American today? It depends on what you value. If you have a big ego, and like to live in a big house and be surrounded by people who flatter you, then you'd say he had a higher living standard. But he only lived 38 years (not untypical of that period) and lacked cell phones, TV, films, jet trips to exotic locales, Japanese and Thai restaurants, the internet, fast cars, etc. In some ways his life was quite monotonous. You can probably tell which life I'd prefer. On the other hand, if you read Thomas Piketty you might come to the conclusion that he'd make the opposite choice. ... However, I don't think antibiotics would have saved Louis XVI's life . . .
Or as William Baumol, et al. put it, “The most astonishing thing about the extraordinary growth and innovation that the U.S. and other economies have achieved over the past two centuries is that it does not astonish us.” 

I must say that I am astonished, and even more so, having just read Marc Levinson's The Box. Ports and transhipment points are bottlenecks and chokepoints. All the more reason to implement containerization whereby freight is easily moved from truck to train to ship and back again. Costs came way down. But not easily or in a simple way. Tremendous capital had been sunk into bulkhead ships -- and their established labor forces. To get to where we are now required a small revolution, including the difficult cooperation of regulators, port authorities, unions, shippers from different modes and competing countries, not to mention the major shipping countries (and their various port authorities) around the world. This did not happen overnight. Levinson tells the story and in a very readable way throughout. Read it and, once again, cherish the fact that all of this came about -- not instantly and not easily -- but in time to make our lives many times better than that of any Louis or any historic royal.