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Eric Hoffer on “Property Rights” in Jobs

I’ve written before about how “The Box,” that is, containerization, slashed the cost of international trade, thus leading to more of it. My guess is that that reduction in cost was the equivalent of dropping tariffs by at least 5 percentage points.

I quoted the famous statement by Paul Krugman that put it nicely:

The ability to ship things long distances fairly cheaply has been there since the steamship and the railroad. What was the big bottleneck was getting things on and off the ships. A large part of the cost of international trade was taking the cargo off the ship, sorting it out, and dealing with the pilferage that always took place along the way. So, the first big thing that changed was the introduction of the container. When we think about technology that changed the world, we think about glamorous things like the internet. But if you try to figure out what happened to world trade, there is really a strong case that it was the container, which could be hauled off a ship and put into a truck or a train and moved on.

The quote is from here.

Like Krugman, I’m a big fan of Marc Levinson’s The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Princeton University Press, 2006.

I happened to page through Levinson’s book the other day looking for something on the famous Harry Bridges, leader of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehouseman’s Union (ILWU). He was very important in the West Coast economy in the 1950s and 1960s, and especially the San Francisco Bay Area economy. Not that I was looking for this, but, as one wag put it when Bridges’s power was near its height, “In San Francisco, there are three bridges: the Golden Gate Bridge, the Oakland Bay Bridge, and Harry Bridges.”

In the process I found an interesting tidbit on Eric Hoffer, the author of The True Believer. (That’s a picture of him above.)

In 1960, employers on the West Coast were trying to clear the decks (pun intended) for mechanization and so they had a bright idea: compensate port workers with the amount of compensation scaled according to how long they had worked.

Levinson writes that in return for “near-total flexibility, the employers agreed to pay $5 million per year.” That was a lot of money in 1960 dollars. Longshoremen with 25 or more years of service would get $7,920, which was about 70 weeks’ base pay, upon retirement at age 65. They would also get the $100 per month ILWU pension. Workers aged 62 to 65 “would be paid $220 a month until age 65 if they retired early.” Others were guaranteed wages on 35 hours of work weekly even if their services weren’t needed. Levinson adds, “Anyone hired as a longshoreman after the agreement was signed would never be eligible for the guarantee because, as a union spokesman explained, ‘they will not have given un anything.'”

I think that most economists who looked at this agreement would approve of it as a way of compensating losers in a relatively efficient way. Eric Hoffer didn’t like it.

Levinson writes:

More than one-third of the ILWU’s members voted no. Some opponents, such as San Francisco’s famed longshoreman-philosopher Eric Hoffer, were outraged on ideological grounds. “This generation has no right to give away, or sell for money, conditions that were handed on to us by a previous generation,” Hoffer stormed.

In short, Hoffer saw the right to a job as an inalienable right.


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