Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Hitler’s Baby Pictures

The familiar faces of evil at Pacific Standard magazine.

Theme: Globalization and distance trust technologies.

Subject Article: "The Trayvon Martin Killing and the Myth of Black-on-Black Crime."

Other Links: 1. "Benefits of Bowling Alone."
2. "The Journalism of Ideas."
3. "The downside of diversity: A Harvard political scientist finds that diversity hurts civic life. What happens when a liberal scholar unearths an inconvenient truth?"
4. "Inbreeding Homophily."
5. "Clevelanders Ask How Abducted Women Were Held Without Notice."

Postscripts: Distance trust technologies concern the exceptions to the face-to-face rule. How can coercion travel across space? A big step in that direction was the standardization of measurements. A pound of flour yielded different amounts depending on the town. Inter-regional commerce was difficult. National and international standards helped to reduce the amount of social capital necessary to catalyze transactions between peoples who don't know each other. A much later innovation, the shipping container, operates under the same principle:

In 1961, before the container was in international use, ocean freight costs alone accounted for 12 percent of the value of U.S. exports and 10 percent of the value of U.S. imports. "These costs are more significant in many cases than governmental trade barriers," the staff of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress advised, noting that the average U.S. import tariff was 7 percent. And ocean freight, dear as it was, represented only a fraction of the total cost of moving goods from one country to another. A pharmaceutical company would have paid approximately $2,400 to ship a truck-load of medicines from the U.S. Midwest to an interior city in Europe in 1960. This might have included payments to a dozen different vendors: a local trucker in Chicago, the railroad that carried the truck trailer on a flatcar to New York or Baltimore, a local trucker in the port city, a port warehouse, a steamship company, a warehouse and a trucking company in Europe, an insurer, a European customs service, and the freight forwarder who put all the pieces of this complicated journey together. Half the total outlay went for port costs.

This process was so expensive that in many cases selling internationally was not worthwhile. "For some commodities, the freight may be as much as 25 per cent of the cost of the product," two engineers concluded after a careful study of data from 1959. Shipping steel pipe from New York to Brazil cost an average of $57 per ton in 1962, or 13 percent of the average cost of the pipe being exported--a figure that did not include the cost of getting the pipe from the steel mill to the dock. Shipping refrigerators from London to Capetown cost the equivalent of 68 U.S. cents per cubic foot, adding $20 to the wholesale price of a midsize unit. No wonder that, relative to the size of the economy, U.S. international trade was smaller in 1960 than it had been in 1950, or even in the Depression year of 1930. The cost of conducting trade had gotten so high that in many cases trading made no sense.

By far the biggest expense in this process was shifting the cargo from land transport to ship at the port of departure and moving it back to truck or train at the other end of the ocean voyage. As one expert explained, "a four thousand mile voyage for a shipment might consume 50 percent of its costs in covering just the two ten-mile movements through two ports." These were the costs that the container affected first, as the elimination of piece-by-piece freight handling brought lower expenses for longshore labor, insurance, pier rental, and the like. Containers were quickly adopted for land transportation, and the reduction in loading time and transshipment cost lowered rates for goods that moved entirely by land.

In effect, international trade was a black market. Port cities were places of intense social capital. Crime was rampant. State surveillance was impossible. The shipping container changed all that. Bowling alone isn't a crisis. It is why murder rates are plummeting in the biggest US cities.

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