Tag: book reviews

Book Review: “North Korea in Transition” – Oh Wait, it’s Not in Transition…


I know book reviews bore everyone, but the journal where I published this doesn’t post electronic versions of book reviews. So I thought this would be a good place to put it for internet accessibility. I tried to make this interesting by focusing on trends in NK, rather than just summarizing the constituent essays. It’s a great introduction to North Korea with lots of big names. I learned a lot from it. But I had to object to the title, likely chosen by an ill-informed editor looking for something catchy. North Korea is not in transition. If anything, we should be focusing on how remarkably stable it is. No matter what happens to the Kim regime – famine, de-industrialization, ‘factionalism,’ Chinese take-over of the economy, Dennis Rodman and his tats – nothing seems to bring down the clan or ever seriously shake it. Its astonishing ability to not change is what we should be our focus. Here’s that review:

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Tobias Gibson Reviews The Thistle and the Drone

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Tobias Gibson of Westminster College.

In recent days, there have been reports of U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan, Pakistan. According to the New York Times article, these strikes killed at least two people. This remote area of Pakistan has long been subject to U.S. drone strikes.

The Times also reports that U.S. anti-terrorism efforts are shifting theaters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Africa. This shift includes the expansion of the use of surveillance drones in Mali, flown from a new drone base in Niger. According to the story, the U.S. is partnering with France “to track fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda and other militants” (my emphasis). One of the points of the article is that the U.S. needs to acquire knowledge about local conditions. According to Michael R. Shurkin, a former CIA analyst who is now at RAND, “Effective responses… require excellent knowledge about local populations and their politics, the sort of understanding that too often eludes the U.S. government and military.” Without understanding local conditions, the author contends, the introduction of drones “runs the risk of creating the type of backlash that has undermined American efforts in Pakistan.”

In a post this week, Charli Carpenter discusses evidence that the civilian death count from drones has been drastically underestimated. She argues that if the death counts are higher than publicly estimated, any humanitarian argument about the use of drone as “precision” weapons “goes out the window.” (Side note: those interested in drones and the continued mechanization of war and security should read her (gated) article “Beware the Killer Robots.”)

All of these recent stories should lead to a more profound appreciation of Akbar Ahmed’s recent book The Thistle and the Drone. Ahmed has a simple, yet profound thesis: “it is the conflict between the center and the periphery and the involvement of the United States that has fueled the war on terror.” According to Ahmed, this conflict has played itself out for centuries, as evidenced by European efforts to “civilize” tribes throughout the world in their colonies, the U.S. efforts to in the west to pacify and relocate indigenous tribes, and current efforts by Russia to end separtist violence in Chechnya… and, Ahmed would argue, those discussed above in Pakistan and Mali. The drone is merely the newest weapon in the center’s arsenal.

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Agree with Heinlein’s ‘Citizens vs. Civilians’? then this US Military History is for you


I was asked by a participating member of the H-Diplo/ISSF network to review The American Culture of War. Here is the original link to my review, but it’s off in some far corner of the internet, so I thought I’d repost it here. In brief, I found the book a pretty disturbing rehearsal of right-wing tropes about the military in a democracy, especially from an academic, and there’s no way I’d ever use it with undergrads as Routledge suggests. The underlying moral driver is the ‘chicken hawk’ principle – that those without military experience are not morally qualified to lead DoD and should otherwise defer to uniformed military. At one point the author actually says that, because the US Army ‘distrusts’ Congress, the Army should ‘guide’ Congress. Yikes. Do Americans (and the author) really need to be told civilian authority runs the other way, and that that’s in the Constitution? I find that sort of military elitism democratically terrifying and reflective of the post-9/11 militarization of America that is now the single most important reason, IMO, to end the war on terror.

I would just add the following update to the review: Both the book and review were written before Petraeus’ resignation, but it should come as no surprise that the text lionizes Petraeus. His resignation is therefore a pleasing schadenfreude for the frightening post-9/11 military hero-worship of the US right. Here we go:

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Guest Post: Dave Kang – “Is America Listening to its East Asian Allies?”

REK: I am pleased to guest-post my friend Dave’s longer, fuller version of a book review he wrote for CSIS. My thanks to CSIS as well. If you aren’t reading Dave yet, I’d recommend it.

“Is America listening to its East Asian allies?: Hugh White’s The China Choice

David C. Kang

For all the recent attention on increasing tensions between the U.S., China, and East Asian countries, regional balance of power dynamics remain muted. The past few years have seen increased Chinese assertiveness, which has led many to expect that East Asian states will flock to the side of the U.S. This has not proven to be the case, however, and Hugh White’s thoughtful and bold new book, The China Choice: Why America Should Share Power, provides some clues as to why not. White argues that neither China nor America “can hope to win a competition for primacy outright, so both would be best served by playing for a compromise.” White concludes that the best policy would be an explicit “Concert of Asia” in which the U.S. and China agree to treat each other as equals and create two clear spheres of influence. White is probably right that a U.S. balancing strategy in East Asia is unlikely to succeed – yet a concert of Asia with two clearly defined spheres of influence would appear fairly similar in the eyes of East Asian states. East Asian countries are clearly hoping to find a pathway that avoids taking sides, and the best approach for the U.S. to take is a strategy that helps them achieve that goal.

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Summer Reading Recommendation, Mithras Edition

The running through of the bulls

Someone asked me the other day whether I had read any books for fun recently. Caught up as I was in compiling the lit review for one project and writing lectures for an introductory class, I couldn’t think of anything–the words “fun” and “reading” at the moment were almost precise antitheses. (Having read large numbers of scholarly treatises is enjoyable. Plowing through large numbers of monographs is tedium.)

And then it struck me that I had in fact read completely unrequired books recently. And that one of them was fantastic–so good, in fact, that it was worth a recommendation to our readership.

Like many people who enjoy history and were raised on Greek and Roman mythology, I have always known that Mithras exists. Yet I knew little about Mithras or Mithraism besides some likely inaccurate assertions of the similarities between the religion and early Christianity. Thus, when the Oxford University Press catalog came by mail a few months ago, I was right in the target demographic for their The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries: Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World by David Ulansey, a professor of religion.

The details of Mithras’s origins and Ulansey’s thesis are available elsewhere, for  instance on the Wikipedia page about the mythology, but I won’t link to them here because I think that it gives away the fun. One of the reasons that a lot of us, including myself, were attracted to academia was the notion of learning new things, and after a while we arrive at a place where we are treated to seemingly endless reinterpretations of old facts (Fashoda, the July Crisis, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so on). The delight in the Mithras book was both that it was a coherent account of something that I knew absolutely nothing about, even though I knew the setting and many of the characters fairly well, and also that Ulansey has structured the book as something like a murder mystery on a cosmic scale.

Again, without spoilers, the book is in part a reconstruction of how a discovery about the universe–not a mystical one, but one that would have seemed almost so to ancient Greeks–transformed itself into a religion. It is, at the same time, an investigation of how to use that knowledge, and offers insight into how sincere intentions might instantiate themselves as a mystery religion. The book also, inter alia, reminds us that the people of the ancient world were complex and rather well  educated–something that I had known intellectually but is a little hard to recall on an emotional scale.

And, best of all, it’s short–really only about 150 pages.


The Last Mughal

Emperor Bahadur Shah II
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The din of the Great Rebellion of 1857 will continue to echo into our era, marred as it is by ongoing wars and insurgencies in Muslim lands. I believe that a careful study of those events are pertinent for American and European students of global politics today as they attempt to contextualize the challenges to American military might and Western cultural hegemony continuously pulsating onto the global stage from the remote corners of South Asia. A chronicle of 1857 is also useful to understand the fragility of a multicultural society in the face of contending religious fundamentalisms and unrelenting militarism.

In this light, William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal (2006) provides an accessible and compelling history of the events which led to the final collapse of a tolerant and refined Indo-Islamic civilization. The book has been controversial among professional historians — particularly South Asian historians, but given the enormity of the subject matter it is digestible for an undergraduate audience and a decent entry point into an unending discussion.

The Great Rebellion, when it is not diminished and dismissed as a “mutiny,” has often been simplified as a confrontation between British imperialists and proto-nationalist Indians, but this is a drastic over simplification — if not an outright caricature of history. Dalrymple’s book helps to lay out the complex array of forces, communities, and individuals that confronted one another during the uprising — from Britons who had converted to Islam and married into notable Muslim families to Hindu soldiers who rallied to fight and die for an ageing and indecisive Muslim emperor alongside 25,000 Wahhabi-inspired jihadis/ mujahedin; and including Hindus and Muslims who had converted to Christianity and adopted British manners and sartorial accoutrement. The book intelligently and consistently resists attempts to read history through a simplifying lens or the meta-narrative of a clash of civilizations.

Nevertheless, goaded on by Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, the war did create horrific atrocities by the Britons and their Sepoy adversaries that polarized communities. In particular, Dalrymple provides an unflinching and detailed account of the crimes perpetrated by British officers and their allies after they sacked the imperial capital — belying any claims by Anglophiles that the Britons were a civilizing force and interrogating the notion of a “just retribution” for the (at times exaggerated) crimes of the rebels.

A lesson to take away from this rich and nuanced history is the role of religious fundamentalists at home and abroad in paving the pathway for slaughter — even though Dalrymple may overplay the religious element of the conflict at the expense of other important causal factors. The devaluation of foreign customs, vilification of rival religious practices, and outright attempts to insult the faith of others set in motion the rumors that would spark the rebellion and cut the last restraints on civilized behavior during and after the uprising on all sides. One often hears international relations scholars diminish the importance of words and labels in favor of material and aggregate behavioral factors. However, it is clear in Dalrymple’s account that discursive violence shaped and facilitated the return of medieval barbarity to the point that the Britons aspired to slaughter all of the inhabitants of Delhi (many of whom had remained steadfastly loyal to them even when the city was occupied by Sepoys) and to “delete” the entire city. If nothing else, the book alerts the reader to understand the very real consequences that accompany a rhetoric which denigrates the culture, faith, and traditional forms of political legitimacy in other communities.  This is a simple lesson, but one that is often lost on policy makers, scholars and students committed to a modernist discourse.


It’s All Our Fault

I’ve had it. Recently I was asked to review a book that will not be named for a journal that will not be mentioned. It was by an author with a pretty good reputation with an excellent press on a subject that I am well informed on. (I won’t mention names. Dan can take him or her to the woodshed later.) I thought I would be doing the field a service and forcing myself to read what I thought would be an entertaining book that I might not otherwise have the time to read. The problem: it is f&ck*ng mess.

Actually that really isn’t the real issue. The real problem is that I am absolutely positive that this book will receive great reviews and probably win a prize. It has glowing blurbs on the back by luminaries in the field that are entirely unjustified and indicate either 1) they have not read the book, or 2) they have read the book but are friends with the author, or 3) they have not read the book, are not friends with the author but have all suffered major brain injuries within the last year. But it is the kind of thing that passes for good qualitative research in international relations right now. And that sucks.

I will be more specific, presenting what I see as the faults of this book, but which really characterize many if not most books in this vein. I will offer them in a positive light, as admonitions for young scholars to do better work, with enough profanity to capture my indignant rage and serious intent.

1) Do not be a bad historian. If you are going to do macro-historical work that relies on comparative case studies, be ready to read at least one goddamn primary document. I am really, really tired of seeing book after book that relies on secondary sources. This is academic hearsay. It is not admissible. And do not, under any circumstances, quote some historian’s conclusion as evidence for your argument. Get off your ass. Do the work. Historians’ work has all the problems that ours does. They are not the Pope.

If you write a book in international relations on a subject where the country’s official secrecy act is no longer in effect and you do not use primary sources, you have no excuse. And even if there is such a law, that probably means it is a relatively contemporary subject. People do have mouths. They can be interviewed. So unless your subject is how it feels to be part of a mass genocide or the politics of public policy towards the deaf and mute, this rule applies to you.

2) Do not be a statistician, much less a bad one. Show causality. The whole point of doing qualitative work, as opposed to statistical, is usually to trace a process. So get out your pencil and trace it. Don’t simply engage in some kind of half-assed correlative argument that this factor is present when this factor is present so you are right. We want to see not just the smoking gun, but the casings, the bullet, the body, and the hand on the trigger. This will probably require some reference to primary documents. See #1. If you ‘t do that you are just a statistician with a small N and no math skills.

3) Do not fall in love with your own ideas. This way your theory and evidence will match. Almost every book or article starts with an idea that is interesting to its originator, and the problem is that idea is a hard one to break up with. Almost any initial hunch is wrong in some way, even if there is also probably something to it. My first book looked for a common partisan alignment on foreign policy across countries. Didn’t exist. My second book looked for the role that identity played in U.S. multilateralism. None.

But it is very clear when you read a lot of academic work that that love never dies and authors will do anything to maintain that relationship. They will twist the truth, ignore obvious inconsistencies, or make excuses for their argument. Don’t do that. Marry. Get divorced. Marry new trophy spouse. Let the initial idea take you into unchartered waters and see where it takes you because that is inevitably somewhere new, but also more interesting.

4) Do a proper literature review. Make sure you have exhausted all the different ways that someone might go about explaining your explanandum and deal with them. Decisively. Do not pretend they are not there. It is rude and also lacks academic integrity.

5) Avoid the two-by-two table. It is a common joke at academic talks that all the great arguments involve two-by-two tables. I am instantly skeptical of every piece I ever read with a 2×2. 90% of the time they are terrible. I think that qualitatively-oriented academics are sensitive about the criticisms they get for lacking parsimony and generalizability and seek to armor themselves by creating simplistic typologies instead of learning math. That is stupid. Embrace context or go to stats camp.

I do both quantitative and qualitative work, but my best work is the latter. We can complain all we want, and I have, by the dominance in the field of certain ‘isms’ and methodologies, but we have to bear part of the blame. They have a point about our fuzzy conclusions and lack of rigor. We do a lot of really bad work, and we have to get better.

This has to be a personal code. The fact that I am reviewing a book with one of the best presses in the business that makes all of these mistakes indicates that there is no professional incentive to do any of this. Only Dan checks people’s footnotes. It must come from your own sense of personal integrity. But I will be watching…..


Friday Nerd Blogging: Robopo-collapse

I am less impressed with Daniel Wilson’s new book than my frenemy Drezner appears, and quite possibly because I so wanted it to be what Wilson admits, at the end of this diavlog, that it is certainly not: World War Z for anti-zombites, a fictionalized near-future scenario that throws lights on present-day socio-political conditions through the metaphor of killer robots rather than supernatural threats.

How Wilson fails so spectacularly is the subject of my latest essay in Current Intelligence:

In my view, there is almost no politics involved: nothing about how political institutions or political actors respond to or enable zero hour, or how they relate to one another as the war unfolds. International relations scholars will be particularly disappointed: the only nations that figure prominently (America, the UK and Japan) operate largely without one another yet in seemingly perfect coordination. It is a techno-utopian scenario brought about by… technological collapse. Really? Who would have thought a book about a zombie plague would have seemed realistic by comparison?

What passes for political narrative is remarkably unsophisticated. Humans appear to have only a single identity after zero hour, that of ‘non-machine,’ quickly banding together in all sorts of unrealistic combinations to fight ‘Rob’. The argument seems to be that when faced with an existential threat dumb city-dwellers will perish or hang their hopes on Red America… one waits in vain for predictable tensions to emerge among the human characters as life becomes increasingly brutish and short, but any that arise are quickly resolved, leaving the book plotless and dry. Factionalism among the robots themselves is somewhat more interesting but ultimately unexplained.

The most interesting aspect of the book is Wilson’s depiction of human vulnerability to technological dominion. His emphasis on specific technological foils with which to critique humanity’s increasing reliance on robotics – which as Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen phrase it in their book Moral Machines, might be termed “bonds, bondage and bombs” – is curiously selective. True, Wilson explores sex-bot culture and the genuine emotional ties humans are developing with electronic objects, detailed more by David Levy’s recent nonfiction work Love and Sex With Robots. And he mocks humans’ emerging reliance on smart cars and smart houses, though in the diavlog he quite rightly points out that these are no doubt positive trends from a human security perspective.

But Wilson barely explores cyborgism at all – or rather how knowledge and socio-political identities themselves are being mediated by humanity’s interface with machine intelligence… and Robopocalypse is largely disconnected from the trend in real-life robotics that has most brought the debate over artificial intelligence and killer machines to the fore: the movement toward the development of autonomous lethal robots.

Read the rest here.


Goldstein: The World Has Never Been More Peaceful

Joshua Goldstein has a must-read book in press entitled Winning the War on War. I’ve seen the advance version and like many things about it, not least of which is the easy-reading style pitched at an informed lay audience, the way he begins with a thought experiment rather than with a bunch of statistics, then draws the reader through available scholarly research in an entertaining way to develop his argument.

The thought experiment: imagine you’re in a time machine moving backward from 2011 to prehistoric times, comparing a) the past ten years with the past twenty; b) the past twenty years with the previous twenty; c) the past fifty years with the previous fifty, d) the past century with the previous centuries and so on.

The argument: though the media and twittersphere often make it seem that the world is an unstable, dangerous place, we are in fact living through the longest and deepest period of peace in human history. According to the promo website:

Read the newspapers, and you’ll be convinced war is worse than it’s ever been: more civilian deaths, more rapes, more armed conflicts all around the world. But as leading scholar and writer Joshua Goldstein shows in this vivid, dramatic book, the reality is just the opposite…

Part of the book shows this to be true, part of the book explains why it is true (with a heavy emphasis on the role of peacekeeping and peace-building missions worldwide). But my favorite part is where Goldstein explains many people are so convinced it’s untrue.

In particular he breaks down a variety of socially constructed narratives about war and peace that have been promulgated by scholars, practitioners and the media over the years, including the statistic that 90% of war’s victims today are civilians, that the Congo war has killed 5.4 million people and that Congo is ground zero for the world’s worst sexual violence epidemic. (To quote Goldstein, “Not.”)

Joshua is also blogging nowadays and I urge readers to check out his posts. I expect the book will get lots of press and some critical reactions this Fall, and will be interested in readers’ thoughts as well.


Good N’ Red Plenty

Henry Farrell mentions Francis Spufford’s new book Red Plenty. Before proceeding, you should know three things:

  1. I have no connection, social or otherwise, with Francis Spufford.
  2. I am a philistine made almost incapable of reading literary fiction by years of journal articles and serious journalism.
  3. I am in no way an expert in any aspect of Soviet culture, politics, or history.

Bearing these facts in mind, let me give the book my highest recommendation. A colleague brought back a copy from the UK at my request, so I’ve read the book well in advance of its American release (which has still not taken place).

It is by far the best novel I have ever read about the Soviet nomenklatura, about the management of a planned economy, and about the transition from the excitement of the Khrushchev years to the Brezhnev stagnation. That obviously undersells the book’s real strengths, which is to attempt to suggest the excitement of building socialism and the stench of its decay. And it is not quite a novel–more a documentary, or even better a much more scrupulously accurate biopic. (In the film version, expect Colin Firth to play the part of the planned economy.)

Whatever it is, it is well worth your time, and certainly worth the price of admission.


Five Days in August

During World War II, teams of scientists raced to build the ultimate weapon: the atomic bomb. This weapon, everyone believed, was so powerful that it would force the Japanese to surrender immediately, eliminating the need for an extremely costly invasion of the Japanese main islands. They built two weapons using two different models: Little Boy, a uranium gun-style weapon, and, just in case the first one wasn’t enough, the Fat Man, a plutonium implosion weapon. When the weapons were ready, President Truman, who knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until Roosevelt’s death, struggled mightily with the moral implications of using these ultimate weapons. The atomic bomb, once dropped on Hiroshima, and then three days later, on Nagasaki, proved America’s overwhelming military superiority to the Japanese, and they promptly surrendered.

If you attended an American high school, this roughly outlines the story you learned about the end of World War II. Perhaps you had an in-class debate about the morality of dropping the bomb. You may have also learned that the decision to drop the bomb was influenced by a desire to impress Stalin, as the the wartime alliance was beginning to fray.

Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August challenges the central premise of this story: that the atomic bomb was perceived as a weapon qualitatively different from what we now call conventional weaponry. Instead, he argues, many (though not all) of the scientists and political and military decision makers understood the new nuclear weapons as simply a more powerful and efficient method of delivering destruction than conventional weaponry, and that this viewpoint was dominant. Although the atomic bomb was part of a larger plan to “shock and awe” the Japanese into surrender, it was only one component of that plan, along with the conventional firebombing of Japanese cities and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war in the Pacific. Most people involved expected the war to continue for some time longer–at the very least, into September, and they expected that they would need to continue to deliver additional atomic weapons throughout this period. The true impact of the atomic bomb, particularly its radiological effects, was unknown, even to the Manhattan Project scientists, who initially discounted reports of radiation sickness in Hiroshima and Nagasaki as Japanese propaganda. The US was surprised not only by the effects of the atomic bombs, but also by the speed of the Japanese surrender.

Gordin makes a convincing case that when World War II became the first (and hopefully last) nuclear war, the people in charge did not fully grasp that they had ushered in a new era. The idea that nuclear weapons are the “unusable weapon” was not immediately obvious, as war-planners not only used the weapons, but planned to use them repeatedly, as fast as they could produce them.

I do wish that he had spent more time on this transformation, though. The final chapter, which discusses the post-war world, doesn’t really explain how the atomic bomb changed from “really efficient deliverer of destruction” to “weapon of the apocalypse”; he notes briefly that the popular imagination was moved by the propaganda about the new weapon’s power and journalistic accounts of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we don’t get much insight into the transformation from either the popular perspective or the policy/military perspective. Perhaps that will be fodder for a future project.


Sea of boxes

By now, you have probably heard about the recall of Thomas the Tank Engine toys, which are decorated with lead paint. While Lead-Foot Thomas is getting a lot of media attention right now, it’s only the latest in a string of serious safety problems associated with products imported from China. Over the last few years, there have been repeated recalls on children’s toys and jewelry due to lead contamination–all produced in China. Then there was the pet food debacle, in which wheat gluten tainted with melamine–a chemical that makes the protein content of the product appear higher and therefore more valuable– was associated with the deaths of hundreds–perhaps even thousands of pets. Less notice has been paid to another chemical contamination that is deadly to humans–the substitution of diethylene glycol, the primary ingredient in antifreeze, for pharmaceutical grade glycerin in toothpaste and cough syrups. Both are sweet, but poisonous diethylene glycol is cheaper than glycerin. The diethylene glycol-contaminated products were primarily destined for the Third World (Latin America and Bangladesh), though some tainted toothpaste has been found in dollar stores in the US. And today, there’s yet another recall, this time on imported tires, which are apparently missing an important safety feature that prevents tread separation.

All these products have something in common: made in China. Although the vast majority of products made in China seem to be perfectly safe, China’s lax regulatory environment means that the market can do what it wants. And the market wants cheap products, often with no questions asked. Scrupulous producers are at risk of being undercut by the unscrupulous, who have an incentive to shave off pennies by any means possible. Sure, they might get caught, but the chances are slim. You can thank Upton Sinclair, Ida Tarbell and the other muckrakers for the fact that it’s so much harder to get away with these tricks in the US.

Some people seem to have taken these incidents as evidence that one shouldn’t buy products made in China. On one parenting board, a poster admonished members to “know where the products they buy come from.” I nearly laughed out loud when I read that. Unless you are buying toys made by the Amish, it’s pretty much impossible to avoid “Made in China.” Low skill, labor-intensive jobs have almost entirely been exported to countries with abundant cheap labor–and China has become the largest world supplier of cheap labor.

Once upon a time, though, the relative cost of labor was not the primary determinant of the location of production. Sure you might be able to produce a product more cheaply overseas than in the US, but the cost of moving it to market was so high that it just wasn’t worth it. Instead, most products were produced locally–and imports were often luxuries rather than discount goods.

Over Memorial Day weekend, I actually managed to polish off a book I’ve been working on for a while: The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger. Most people, when asked about what drives globalization, would probably talk about the internet and McDonald’s and Coca Cola and American movie blockbusters. But if you really want to contemplate globalization, start looking at the labels in your clothing. The shirt I’m wearing was made in Indonesia, my pants in India. My daughter’s shirt was made in Guatemala. I have clothing made all over the world: Vietnam, Sri Lanka, even Kazakhstan. My computer was “assembled” in China, though heaven knows where each of the component parts where made. The phone sitting next to me was made in Malaysia.

As I said, it wasn’t always like that. It used to be that the vast majority of things you bought were made close to home. New York City, for example, had a thriving garment industry because it was close to both the designers and the customers. Why? Because it cost a fortune to move things around. Remember “On the Waterfront?” In the “old days”, longshoremen loaded and unloaded ships’ cargo piecemeal. It often took over a week to unload and reload a ship during a port call, and it was easy for valuable cargo to “walk”. The bulk of the cost of transporting goods from one place to another was incurred as labor costs in port.

Containers, on the other hand, are efficiently loaded on and off ships and easily transferable to land-based transportation (rail or truck). The labor efficiencies are enormous. Container shipping has transformed the world economy by reducing the cost of shipping products to the point where shipping is a tiny fraction of the overall cost.

The transition to container shipping didn’t happen overnight, and it was punctuated with false starts and bad decisions. Arriving at a standard for containers–their size, their crane couplings, etc.–took years, and in the meantime, shipping companies invested in ships, containers, and port cranes that would become useless if and when standards were ever agreed upon. The longshoremen also suffered–though Levinson argues that the unions largely managed to negotiate deals that smoothed the transition (The Wire notwithstanding). It is telling, though, that the older, more established ports, where the unions fought hardest and most successfully to hold back the transition to container traffic, are also ports that died: New York, San Francisco, Boston. On the other hand, those older ports were also poorly situated for container traffic: old cities, with narrow streets that are difficult for tractor trailers to negotiate.

For the most part, The Box is a fascinating book (though my attention did wander during the lengthy and detailed discussion of the various labor negotiations and the extended wrangling over the standardization of container sizes). The explanation of the impact of the shift from traditional shipping to container shipping is, I think, extremely important to building an comprehension of the true drivers of globalization. I know it’s unoriginal to trash Tom Friedman, but having suffered through The World Is Flat last year, I was struck by the fact that nowhere in his pontification on the “global supply chain” did he mention container shipping. Large metal boxes, I guess, aren’t as sexy as open source software–nor is “Maersk Sealand” as compelling a brand name-drop. But the reason why it makes economic sense to make “Virgin of Guadelupe” statues in China and ship them to Mexico is that it’s so bloody cheap to ship them, and the reason it’s so bloody cheap to ship them is the container. If the shipping weren’t so cheap, it wouldn’t matter that labor is marginally cheaper in China than in Mexico.

By reducing shipping costs to a footnote, container shipping has made shipping itself into a footnote rather than a limiting factor. Instead, production decisions are made according to factor input costs–the relative costs of labor and capital. Container shipping has made classical trade theory (basically) true by reducing shipping costs to the point where they can be nearly assumed away, as typical in trade models. No wonder (orthodox) economists love the modern era of “free trade”–it makes them look right. But the dropping of trade barriers isn’t what drives globalization, it’s shipping, shipping, shipping.

So why is Thomas made in China? Because it’s cheaper to ship him here than to produce him here. The fundamental premise of the market, as my favorite econ professor liked to intone, is “buy low, sell high.” The logic of the market means that production of anything that is low-skill labor intensive will flow to a low-skill labor abundant market–China effectively exports its cheap labor to our expensive labor market. Buy low, sell high. And safety will continue to be a concern for these imported products until we can figure out how to effectively internalize the external cost of ensuring higher safety standards. Don’t think for a minute that the recall-associated costs to the owner of the Thomas franchise are higher than the profits associated with long-term production in China–this recall is merely a “cost of doing business”. Safety problems with products imported from China will not resolve themselves unless there is a genuine economic incentive placed on the producers (presumably by the American importers). The toothlessness of Chinese officialdom in face of the imperatives of market is on display in this account by a New York Times reporter who attempted to visit the factory producing the tainted Thomas toys. Don’t expect a robust regulatory regime to appear on its own, folks.


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