20 years reveals gigantic strides in international trade

The politics of trade policy often obscures what should be an unambiguously positive story about the globalisation of the world economy. Goods which were previously produced on a single site are now produced in a virtual international factory-each element assembled in different countries, even continents, and linked by the international shipping network.

In his 2006 history of the shipping container The Box, Marc Levinson illustrated this by detailing the convoluted production process of a Barbie doll – Chinese workers produce the figure using moulds from the United States, machinery from Japan and Europe, and plastic from Taiwan; her hair is produced in Japan, the pigments from the United States, and the clothing from China.

Just how rapidly the world’s economies are becoming interdependent is clear when we look at the shipping container. The US-based Progressive Policy Institute has recently noted that the container capacity of an average container ship has massively increased over the last two decades. The average ship can now carry the 2,348 twenty-foot equivalent units (the size of a standard shipping container). The international container ship fleet has itself grown four-fold since 1987.

And this is only set to increase. The world’s longest container ship, the Danish-owned Emma Maersk can carry 11,000 units.

This rapid and dramatic increase in international economic integration has been just as significant for our economic well-being as have any changes in public policy. The entrepreneur who popularised the shipping container – Malcolm McLean – should be just as well remembered as the politicians who cut tariffs. And when we look at the low cost and high variety of goods available in our stores, we should remember that it was entrepreneurs who brought them there, not well-crafted public policy.