Last November, when I interviewed Rob Long, the veteran TV producer/writer (whose work includes Cheers and numerous other TV sitcoms) during the National Review cruise to the Caribbean, he mentioned that immediately afterward, he was off an a very different kind of ocean voyage. He was hoping onboard the Hanjin Miami, a container ship bound for Shanghai to have the space and time to write. Writing on a slow boat to China? Hey, it beats checking into the Overlook Hotel, I guess.
A SHIP the size of the Hanjin Miami can haul more than 7,000 containers–each one what they call a TEU, or Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit–but these days they mostly haul half as many 40- or even 45-foot steel containers, giant shoeboxes that can go pretty effortlessly from ship to railroad to truck trailer. Modern freight transport is the product of a flash of insight by an American trucking magnate named Malcom [sic] McLean, who devised a system for loading, unloading, and hauling standardized shipping containers in the 1950s. Until he came along, cargo had to be loaded and unloaded piece by piece. McLean streamlined the process, managed to cut almost 95 percent of the cost of overseas shipping, decimated the stevedores union–you didn’t need hundreds of guys anymore; you just needed one in a tall crane–and ushered in the biggest, widest economic boom in history.
If the world is flat, it’s not because of the Internet. It’s because of shipping companies like Hanjin, which can haul containers filled with tens of thousands of flat-screen TVs from the ports of China to the port of Long Beach, Calif., load the containers onto trucks or trains, and have the flat screens on the shelves of your local Wal-Mart in a few days.
And that’s pretty much where the global supply chain peters out. The containers that were stacked so high and deep on the Hanjin Miami as we made our stormy way from Seattle to Shanghai were empty. That’s what we send back to China: empty containers. They send us extruded plastic doodads and TVs and blue jeans, and we send them empty boxes to refill and resend. They make stuff to wear and use, and we make credit-default swaps.
When the weather got nice, I walked along the outside deck–yes, yes: I did some writing, too; stop nagging me–and looked at the rows and rows of empties. Some weren’t empty, of course: The “reefers,” or refrigerated units, carried frozen fish and lobster, and one or two of the containers were marked “contains American hay,” which is not something I ever thought might be a major export.
But what started as a writer’s retreat, a way to trick myself into finishing a troublesome script, became instead a front-row seat to the world’s economic slump. America doesn’t make; it buys. And when America stops buying, the whole system shuts down. Outside of Shanghai harbor, anchored in a miles-long watery parking lot, were hundreds of container ships waiting for orders, killing time until there was a reason to head into port. If Wal-Mart doesn’t expect much demand, the message goes out to the masters of every container ship plying the water between China and the United States: Don’t hurry back. So they don’t. They sit at anchor and wait for better times.
Three weeks after we left Seattle, I stood on the flybridge of the Hanjin Miami on a bright morning as she steamed into Shanghai harbor. My iPhone buzzed and beeped and deposited dozens of e-mails and text messages and voice-mail notices. The script was finished. I had even begun a new one.
“Maybe I’ll see you again, on another crossing,” I said to the master, as we shook hands near the gangway.
“If there is another crossing,” he replied. The cranes began to lift the containers from the ship and set them aside, for later.
And nearly a year later, that’s what an article online today in England’s Daily Mail explores, with eerie photos of the greatest fleet you’ve never heard of — and which doesn’t appear to going anywhere anytime soon: