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To see how much the port of New York has changed over the past half-century, watch a double bill of 1954′s On the Waterfront and 2005′s War of the Worlds. In the final scene of Waterfront, Marlon Brando leads a crew of a hundred men onto the pier to unload a just-arrived ship. Dockworkers of the day only had a few tools and machines at their disposal, and largely depended on their own brute force to move thousands of small cartons and sacks. Fast-forward five decades to almost exactly the same spot on the Brooklyn waterfront. In the opening scene of War of the Worlds, Tom Cruise unloads a vessel practically by himself. Sitting high in the control cab of a massive crane, he gently taps a joystick to maneuver a steady progression of 40-foot-long metal boxes off a ship and onto waiting trucks. Those undistinguished containers that Cruise swings though the air are the star of Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Few things have contributed as much to globalization as the development of containerized shipping, Levinson argues. His humble box may not have the glamour of the computer or the jet, but, in its own way, it has done just as much to revolutionize our world. Before containerization led to a drop in high shipping rates, only goods that couldn’t be produced domestically, such as bananas or Scotch whiskey, could be profitably imported to the United States. Today, products that can be made in America, such as microwaves or DVD players, are manufactured wherever labor is cheapest, since shipping has become essentially “costless.” That’s because containerization has introduced numerous efficiencies throughout the entire process of transporting goods, not just at dockside. The case for the importance of the shipping container is compelling, and one that Levinson, as a former editor at The Economist and writer at Newsweek, is well suited to tell. But while The Box is authoritative and expertly researched, it’s too wide-ranging and suffers from a lack of focus. Another serious problem is that Levinson’s story drowns in a sea of statistics. Many of the numbers that appear on seemingly every page of The Box are simply irrelevant and slow its pace. On the other hand, Levinson fails to highlight statistics that are crucial to prove his argument. How much more cargo is shipped around the world today, compared to precontainerization? That statistic might be hidden somewhere in The Box, but it can’t be easily found. Levinson’s book celebrates the golden anniversary of its subject: On April 26, 1956, the world’s first container ship set sail from Newark. That boat was owned by Malcom McLean, the business tycoon who did more to develop and promote containerized shipping than anyone else. At the beginning of The Box, Levinson says that his initial thought was to write about McLean. Certainly the author would have produced a more focused book if he’d stuck to that impulse. But though McLean seems like a colorful character — an innovator in corporate dealmaking as well as shipping — little of his personality comes across in The Box. Instead, Levinson wanders across other aspects of the industry. Some chapters are quite strong, especially one that explains how the Vietnam War gave a boost to container shipping. The U.S. military had huge problems supplying a battlefront halfway around the world until it embraced McLean’s boats and the new port he built at Cam Ranh Bay. That experience not only sold the government on the benefits of container shipping, but also helped McLean develop a new route: After leaving Vietnam, his empty boats stopped in Japan to pick up a paying load for the trip back to the U.S. Surprisingly, Levinson pays little attention to the aspect of container shipping that is currently its most worrisome — the possibility that terrorists could use one of these boxes to secretly transport a dirty bomb into any of the world’s major ports. Though several writers have raised this scenario since 9/11, Levinson devotes only a single sentence to it. Should this ever happen, however, the shipping container will have transformed the world again — but in a far different way. Brian Zabcik is a senior editor at Corporate Counsel.

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