Chicago freight, the new Panama Canal, and The Dominance of Trade


Ships passing through the Panama Canal. We needed a bigger canal, for bigger ships. Hell, dig up the whole country!

After years of delays, mismanagement, disaster, and an economic downturn, the expanded Panama Canal (which saw much worse during its initial construction) is set to open on Sunday. This is a deeper and wider lane for the enormous freighters that have accompanied Asia’s economic rise: the massive sun-blotting  container ships, quarter-mile long, and capable of carrying tens of thousands of tons.

This is extremely important for trade, in a value-neutral sense, because it means that the giant ships, which couldn’t fit in the narrower and shallower original canal, will be able to bypass the West Coast and go directly to New York and other East Coast ports. The ramifications of this quickly trickle down.

Crain’s, the business paper out of Chicago which is not exactly a Sanders-ite rag, talked about the potential impact on this railroad hub. Ships that couldn’t fit the canal would be loaded on trains heading to Chicago, and thence to the east, following the same path that allowed Chicago to be the focal point of empire. Now, though, these ships can get through, which will have a potentially huge impact on Chicago’s economy. About 5% of the Chicago economy is based on railroad freight (Great Lakes shipping is another matter). If Chicago can be bypassed, that’s a lot of jobs that will disappear, thanks to a canal built half a world away.

Of course, no one seems really certain, and anyway, the impact might not be felt for years. Certainly, as the Journal reported, New York isn’t ready for these monster ships: the Bayonne Bridge isn’t tall enough, and it won’t be ready for at least another year.

That’s not to mention that the Canal itself has the hallmarks of a disaster, as epically reported by the Times. The locks are barely wide enough to handle the largest ships, and are almost exactly as long as the ships plus the two tugboats needed to maneuver them. There won’t be any room for error, which given the swirling currents when fresh water meets the ocean, could be a disaster. The tugboat union certainly thinks so. Panama awarded the contract to a rock-bottom bidder, who came in billions below the next-lowest, and it has shown. (The article almost makes you sympathetic with Bechtel, which is a hell of a thing to be.) The concrete has been leaky, and there might not be enough water.


Image from NYTimes. The new locks are 1400 feet. The Neo-Panamax ships are 1200. Tugboats are about 100 each. Snug!

And oh yeah, about that water: it mostly comes from a vast, manmade lake which provides most of Panama their drinking water. The Panamanian canal administrator has literally scolded the nation for drinking too much water, and lowering the levels, making it harder for the ships to pass through.

That seems to me to be the perfect image of the subservience to trade, of its dominance in our lives. A suspiciously rich and powerful bureaucrat, who awarded life-and-death jobs to a shoddy but connected international conglomerate, complaining about its citizens drinking too much water, and not allowing these enormous, inhumanly-scaled ships to pass through a gash cut through a continent, while two great cities thousands of miles away scramble to reconfigure an economy and raise bridges to let them pass, as workers in the cities the goods pass through lose their livelihood, and workers where the goods are made are beaten and starved and robbed.

We make these enormous ships. We dig through continents and connect oceans. We raise bridges. To say that we can’t do anything about the inequity and iniquity of global trade is to give in the free market superstition, the only truly global religion.


3 thoughts on “Chicago freight, the new Panama Canal, and The Dominance of Trade

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