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Posts Tagged ‘global trade

“Pam, this is from corporate. How many times have I told you that there is a special filing cabinet for things from corporate? Called the waste paper basket!”*…

The subject of this essay emerged by chance. I was researching the history of the U.S. passport, and had spent weeks at the National Archives, struggling through thousands of reels of unindexed microfilm records of 19th-century diplomatic correspondence; then I arrived at the records for 1906. That year, the State Department adopted a numerical filing system. Suddenly, every American diplomatic office began using the same number for passport correspondence, with decimal numbers subdividing issues and cases. Rather than scrolling through microfilm images of bound pages organized chronologically, I could go straight to passport-relevant information that had been gathered in one place.

I soon discovered that I had Elihu Root to thank for making my research easier. A lawyer whose clients included Andrew Carnegie, Root became secretary of state in 1905. But not long after he arrived, the prominent corporate lawyer described himself as “a man trying to conduct the business of a large metropolitan law-firm in the office of a village squire.” The department’s record-keeping practices contributed to his frustration. As was then common in American offices, clerks used press books or copybooks to store incoming and outgoing correspondence in chronologically ordered bound volumes with limited indexing. For Root, the breaking point came when a request for a handful of letters resulted in several bulky volumes appearing on his desk. His response was swift: he demanded that a vertical filing system be adopted; soon the department was using a numerical subject-based filing system housed in filing cabinets.

The shift from bound volumes to filing systems is a milestone in the history of classification; the contemporaneous shift to vertical filing cabinets is a milestone in the history of storage…

It is easy to dismiss the object: a rectilinear stack of four drawers, usually made of metal. With suitable understatement, one design historian has noted that “manufacturers did not address the subject of style with regard to filing units.” The lack of style figures into the filing cabinet’s seeming banality. It is not considered inventive or original; it is simply there, especially in 20th-century office spaces; and this ubiquity, along with the absence of style, perhaps paradoxically contributes to the easy acceptance of its presence, which rarely causes comment…

But if it appears to be banal and pervasive, it cannot be so easily ignored. The filing cabinet does not just store paper; it stores information; and because the modern world depends upon and is indeed defined by information, the filing cabinet must be recognized as critical to the expansion of modernity. In recent years scholars and critics have paid increasing attention to the filing systems used to store and retrieve information critical to government and capitalism, particularly information about people — case dossiers, identification photographs, credit reports, et al. But the focus on filing systems ignores the places where files are stored. Could capitalism, surveillance, and governance have developed in the 20th century without filing cabinets? Of course, but only if there had been another way to store and circulate paper efficiently. The filing cabinet was critical to the infrastructure of 20th-century nation states and financial systems; and, like most infrastructure, it is often overlooked or forgotten, and the labor associated with it minimized or ignored.

The vertical filing cabinet was invented in the United States in the 1890s, and quickly became a fixture throughout North America and around the world. It spread globally because it provided a way to store large amounts of paper so that individual sheets could be retrieved easily. The technique of using drawers for storing a sheet of paper on its long edge was significant because loose papers cannot stand upright on their own. Put another way, the filing cabinet technology enabled loose paper to stand on edge so that more sheets could be stored in less space but still be accessed with minimal difficulty. It allowed loose papers to do the work of paperwork…

The filing cabinet had at least two inventors — and likely several others who remain lost to the historical record. The current accepted version attributes the invention to the Library Bureau, the Boston-based company founded in 1876 by Melvil Dewey, inventor of the eponymous decimal system of library classification. Although the Library Bureau would proudly claim the invention, critical developments happened elsewhere. It was the secretary of a charity organization based in Buffalo, New York, a man identified as Dr. Nathaniel Rosenau, who provided the initial impetus for construction of a vertical filing cabinet. Inspired by the use of cabinets to store index cards on their edges, Rosenau sought a bigger container for papers.

In 1892, he took his idea to the Library Bureau’s Chicago office, which built a prototype. But no matter the inventor, the turn of the 20th century saw the filing cabinet develop as a part of the rapid growth of an office equipment industry in which dozens of companies manufactured practically identical products with little respect for the hundreds of patents issued for products and parts. To underscore their uniqueness and modernity, this industry explicitly labeled its products “equipment,” “appliances,” and “machines” — not furniture. And it made these products indispensable to offices, and thus helped to constitute the office as a “modern” workspace. The office with a vertical filing cabinet was decidedly not a 19th-century office…

The filing cabinet was critical to the information infrastructure of the 20th-century; like most infrastructure, it was usually overlooked– an oversight that Craig Robertson (@craig2robertson) rectifies: “The Filing Cabinet.”

* “Michael Scott,” The Office (Pilot episode)

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As we savor storage, we might spare a thought for Malcolm Purcell McLean; he died on this date in 2001. A transportation entrepreneur, he parlayed his experience as a trucker into the development of the modern shipping container— which revolutionized transport and international trade in the second half of the twentieth century. Containerization led to a significant reduction in the cost of freight transportation by eliminating the need for repeated handling of individual pieces of cargo, and also improved reliability, reduced cargo theft, and cut inventory costs (thus, working capital needs) by shortening transit time.

When McLean died in 1987, then Secretary of Transportation Norm Minetta said:

Malcom revolutionized the maritime industry in the 20th century. His idea for modernizing the loading and unloading of ships, which was previously conducted in much the same way the ancient Phoenicians did 3,000 years ago, has resulted in much safer and less-expensive transport of goods, faster delivery, and better service. We owe so much to a man of vision, “the father of containerization,” Malcolm P. McLean.

In an editorial shortly after his death, the Baltimore Sun wrote that “he ranks next to Robert Fulton as the greatest revolutionary in the history of maritime trade,” and Forbes Magazine called McLean “one of the few men who changed the world.” On the morning of McLean’s funeral, container ships around the world blew their whistles in his honor.

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“Exorbitant privilege”*…

Economic history books will commemorate the era we currently live in as the second wave of financial globalization, following the first wave during the Classical Gold Standard period. Our era is characterized by an unprecedented expansion of global financial flows. Partly, these flows form the counterpart to global value chains and the globalization of trade in goods and services. In the last few decades, however, they have been increasingly decoupled from the real sector. The financial infrastructure that enables this expansion is the international monetary system…

In its current shape, [the international monetary system] has a hierarchical structure with the US-Dollar (USD) at the top and various other monetary areas forming a multilayered periphery to it. A key feature of the system is the creation of USD offshore – a feature that in the 1950s and 60s developed in co-evolution with the Bretton Woods System and in the 1970s replaced it. Since the 2007–9 Financial Crisis, this ‘Offshore US-Dollar System’ has been backstopped by the Federal Reserve’s network of swap lines which are extended to other key central banks. This systemic evolution may continue in the decades to come, but other systemic arrangements are possible as well and have historical precedents. This article discusses four trajectories that would lead to different setups of the international monetary system by 2040, taking into account how its hierarchical structure and the role of offshore credit money creation may evolve. In addition to a continuation of USD hegemony, we present the emergence of competing monetary blocs, the formation of an international monetary federation and the disintegration into an international monetary anarchy…

Americans tend to take the global primacy of the U.S. Dollar for granted (indeed, often complaining about the current account imbalances to which huge quantities of off-shore dollars lead). But there’s no mistaking that this system has been been hugely advantageous to the U.S. Yet, as Steffen Murau (@steffenmurau) explains, it may not last: “The evolution of the Offshore US-Dollar System: past, present and four possible futures.”

See also Mernau’s “International Monetary System” (from whence, the image above), and Ben Bernanke’s “The dollar’s international role: An ‘exorbitant privilege’?

* Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (then the French Minister of Finance; later French President), referring to the benefit that accrues to the U.S. as a result of the U.S. Dollar being the world’s reserve currency

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As we count our blessings, we might recall that it was on this date in 1890 that journalist Nellie Bly completed her 72-day trip around the world.

In 1888, Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time.  A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, with two days’ notice, she boarded the steamer Augusta Victoria, and began her 24,899-mile journey.

She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear, and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.

Bly traveled through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan.  Just over seventy-two days after her departure from Hoboken, having used steamships and existing railway lines, Bly was back in New York; she beat Phileas Fogg’s time by almost 8 days.

Nellie Bly, in a publicity photo for her around-the-world voyage. Caption on the original photo reads: “Nellie Bly, The New York World‘s correspondent who placed a girdle round the earth in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.”

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“Bright moons cunningly carved and dyed with spring water”*…

 

Tang Porcelain

 

‘I am not yet so infected with the contagion of China-fancy’, wrote Samuel Johnson in a letter in September 1777, ‘as to like any thing at that rate which can so easily be broken’. At the time, the craze for Chinese export porcelain – ceramics mass-produced in China for foreign markets – had reached epidemic proportions in the Western world: a ‘contagion of China-fancy’. Over 70 million pieces entered Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and customers from London to Lisbon were desperate for more. The most afflicted were the ‘porcelain sick’ royals and aristocrats, who coated their palace walls, floors and ceilings in ‘white gold’. Patient zero was August the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. His Porzellankrankheit was so acute that he amassed a collection of nearly 30,000 pieces and imprisoned the alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger until he figured out porcelain’s secret recipe, which had been closely guarded by the Chinese for centuries.

Export porcelain fused two worlds – producer and consumer, East and West – establishing a relationship that continues to shape the way the world works today…

How Chinese porcelain became a worldwide sensation, changing tastes and the global economy: “White Gold.”

See also: “The European Obsession with Porcelain.”

[Image above: source]

* from a Tang Dynasty (618-907) poem describing the Emperor’s porcelain tea cups

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As we handle with care, we might recall that it was on this date in 1972, after President Richard Nixon’s successful visit to China, that Beijing gave the National Zoo a pair of giant pandas, Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing.  (The U.S. sent China a pair of musk oxen.)

On that first day, nearly 20,000 people stood in long lines to catch a glimpse of North America’s first pandas; in their initial year at the zoo, the pair attracted more than 1 million visitors.

Ling-Ling_and_Hsing-Hsing_1985 source

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 16, 2020 at 1:01 am

“The international situation is desperate, as usual”*…

 

world_trade_bonds

 

Two experts agree that the days of increasingly easy and speedy global flows of goods, money, people, and ideas are over; the future that Tom Friedman evoked in The World is Flat is, at best, delayed.  But they have very different ideas of what this may mean…

First, Jean Pisani-Ferry: after a sharp precis of the forces that that have led us to what he calls a “spiky” world, he suggests…

US President Donald Trump’s ruthless use of the centrality of his country’s financial system and the dollar to force economic partners to abide by his unilateral sanctions on Iran has forced the world to recognize the political price of asymmetric economic interdependence. In response, China (and perhaps Europe) will fight to establish their own networks and secure control of their nodes. Again, multilateralism could be the victim of this battle.

A new world is emerging, in which it will be much harder to separate economics from geopolitics. It’s not the world according to Myrdal, Frank, and Perroux, and it’s not Friedman’s flat world, either. It’s the world according to Game of Thrones.

Read his piece in full at “Farewell, Flat World.”

Then consider the argument of Michael O’Sullivan, who agrees with Pisani-Ferry as to the diagnosis, but has a very different prognosis:

Globalization, at least in the form that people have come to enjoy it, is defunct. From here, the passage away from globalization can take two new forms. One dangerous scenario is that we witness the outright end of globalization in much the same manner as the first period of globalization collapsed in 1913. This scenario is a favorite of commentators because it allows them to write about bloody end-of-the-world calamities. This is, thankfully, a low-probability outcome, and with apologies to the many armchair admirals in the commentariat who, for instance, talk willfully of a conflict in the South China Sea, I suggest that a full-scale sea battle between China and the United States is unlikely.

Instead, the evolution of a new world order—a fully multipolar world composed of three (perhaps four, depending on how India develops) large regions that are distinct in the workings of their economies, laws, cultures, and security networks—is manifestly underway. My sense is that until 2018, multipolarity was a more theoretical concept—more something to write about than to witness. This is changing quickly: trade tensions, advances in technologies (such as quantum computing), and the regulation of technology are just some of the fissures around which the world is splitting into distinct regions. Multipolarity is gaining traction and will have two broad axes. First, the poles in the multipolar world have to be large in terms of economic, financial, and geopolitical power. Second, the essence of multipolarity is not simply that the poles are large and powerful but also that they develop distinct, culturally consistent ways of doing things. Multipolarity, where regions do things distinctly and differently, is also very different from multilateralism, where they do them together…

Read an interview with O’Sullivan and more of the excerpt from his new book, The Levelling: What’s Next After Globalization quoted above at “Globalisation is dead and we need to invent a new world order.”

For more on the history of nativism and protectionism, especially in the U.S., concluding, as Pisani-Ferry and O’Sullivan do, that they’re with for awhile, see David Kotok‘s “Borders.”

* Tom Robbins , Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

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As we renew our passports, we might recall that it was on this date in 1405 that Ming Dynasty admiral Zheng He set sail on the first of his seven exploratory “treasure voyages” to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa, exacting tribute and encouraging trade.

After his death, at the end of his seventh expedition, Ming naval efforts declined dramatically (the government’s attention having been diverted by a threat from the Mongols in their northwest).  1950s historians like Joseph Needham popularized the idea that after Zheng He’s voyages, China turned away from the seas (as reflected in to the Haijin edict) and was isolated from European technological advancements.  But modern historians point out that Chinese maritime commerce didn’t totally stop after Zheng He, that Chinese ships continued to participate in Southeast Asian commerce until the 19th century, and that active Chinese trading with India and East Africa continued long after the time of Zheng.

In any case, it’s clear that Zheng He belongs atop any list of maritime adventurers– the vanguard of globalization.

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Statue from a modern monument to Zheng He

source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 11, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The map? I will first make it.”*…

 

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Nautical map of the world by Nicolo di Caverio, 1506

 

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, European powers sent voyagers to lands farther and farther away from the continent in an expansionist period we now call the Age of Exploration. These journeys were propelled by religious fervor and fierce colonial sentiment—and an overall desire for new trade routes. They would not have been possible without the rise of modern cartography. While geographically accurate maps had existed before, the Age of Exploration saw the emergence of a sustained tradition of topographic surveying. Maps were being made specifically to guide travelers. Technology progressed quickly through the centuries, helping explorers and traders find their way to new imperial outposts—at least sometimes. On other occasions, hiccups in cartographic reasoning led their users even farther astray…

How cartography made early modern global trade possible: “First you make the maps.”

* Patrick White, Voss

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As we find our way, we might recall that it was on this date in 1578– the same day that King Henry III laid the first stone of the Pont Neuf (“New Bridge”), the oldest remaining bridge in Paris– that the Catacombs of Rome were (re-)discovered.  Underground burial sites in use mostly in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, they were decorated with both iconographic and stylistic paintings and mosaics.  After their rediscovery, it took several decades to explore and map them; indeed, new discoveries have been made as recently as the 1950s.

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Eucharistic fresco in the Catacombs [source]

 

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 31, 2019 at 1:01 am

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