State of Nature

I’ve been reading a lot of books lately, some of which I’ve mentioned here: The Submerged State by Suzanne Mettler, Invisible Hands by Kim Phillips-Fein, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations (finally) by David Landes, Exorbitant Privilege by Barry Eichengreen, and a pile of books on the national debt and deficit politics. (Despite moonlighting as a blogger, I find books more satisfying than the constant stream of newspapers, magazines, and blogs.) But my favorite book I’ve read in a while is Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by the historian Richard White.

For some people, most notably Rick Perry but also much of the conservative base, the late nineteenth century was the golden age: of the gold standard, no income tax, senators elected by state legislatures, and, most importantly, little to no government “regulation” of business. White shows what that world was really like.

The book focuses on the “transcontinentals”—railroads that began West of the Mississippi and ran to the Pacific. These railroads have often ben heralded as great achievements of entrepreneurial capitalism and the first modern corporations. Not so much, White argues.

First of all, the transcontinental railroads were a poor use of capital. There simply wasn’t enough transcontinental traffic to warrant any transcontinental railroads, let alone so many. Even in the late nineteenth century, it was cheaper to send goods by steamship (with an overland journey in Panama). The railroads only survive because the Pacific Mail was a “lazy and corrupt” company. The railroads bribed the steamship company by overpaying for capacity, and in return the Pacific Mail kept prices high enough so the railroads could “compete.”

So how did unnecessary, inefficient railroads get built? Because of government subsidies. In short, the federal government paid to build the railroads through massive financing subsidies and also gave them ample land grants. The trick to building a railroad was not knowing anything about railroads or even about business; it was having friends in Washington who could give you the right financing and land subsidies.

Even then, the railroads lost money. Not only was there insufficient demand for their services, but they were run by people who were generally incompetent. (For one thing, they didn’t even know their own costs of doing business.) Yet the people who owned the railroads made fabulous amounts of money (of which Stanford University is one symbol). The main way to do this was simple. The people who controlled a railroad (generally by putting up very little of their own money, thanks to the government subsidies) would also wholly own a construction company. They would cause the railroad to overpay the construction company to build the railroad—in effect transferring wealth from railroad stockholders and creditors into their own pockets. Another scheme was to buy up land along future railroad routes that only they knew to make an easy profit. Only slightly riskier were schemes to make money by using insider information to trade in securities of their own companies.

The railroads themselves also put the lie to the myth of the efficient, modern corporation. Executives had virtually no control over what went on in the field. Jobs were treated as a form of patronage, with rampant nepotism. Corruption existed on all levels, with station agents routinely pocketing a share of revenues. Competition failed to impose discipline: when one railroad lost traffic to another, it would simply overbuild in another place to compensate, leading to even more overcapacity. The only solution was cartels, but even those failed because the railroad heads were too incompetent to figure out a way to restrain their own behavior.

All along the way, you also see the other consequences of concentrated power, enormous wealth, and political protection. Railroads resisted installing automatic train couplers for decades, resulting in many unnecessary deaths. The railroads interfered in other markets by setting rates in a discriminatory fashion, influencing what crops farmers produced and determining which competitors won and lost. Through it all, you see rich people surrounded by circles of flatterers and yes-men who despise them behind their backs.

This is what the golden age of unregulated capitalism looked like. It’s also the world we’re heading towards: one where inefficient corporations run by incompetent bunglers make huge piles of money for a chosen few executives and owners by buying politicians (completely legally, thanks to Citizens United), shifting losses onto outsiders and imposing costs on the rest of society. If this sounds like hyperbole, just think about the financial crisis.