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Posts Tagged ‘James Polk

“How dare you try to hog all the continent!”*…

The ceremony for the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, Utah, May 10, 1869 (source)

Historian Richard White on the greed, ineptitude, and economic cost behind the transcontinental railroads of the 19th century, and what that says about the development of infrastructure today…

Politicians love a good historical analogy. That’s why Joe Biden has compared his infrastructure law to the construction of the interstate highway system and the transcontinental railroad. The president, of course, means such comparisons in a flattering light. For those who have studied these revolutionary policy choices, however, the consequences are not so unblemished.

Ten years ago, historian Richard White catalogued the greed and ineptitude of railroad executives and the policymakers who blindly enabled their schemes. In Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, he explored the history of corporations that have gone down in American myth as corrupt but ultimately productive and necessary.

White argues that the transcontinental railroad companies were not necessary for stitching the young country together; they were simply an example of “dumb growth” that hurt more than it helped. Sped along by state subsidy and paid-for politicians, these corporations built in places where there were no markets. They never made money. The entire enterprise was a vast Ponzi scheme, and its periodic turmoil threw the nation into repeated economic crisis. Their selfish flailing scourged wildlife, oppressed Native Americans, and spread new settlements to areas where they could not be sustained (and after long suffering were not).

Instead of an all-powerful “octopus” engulfing the country, he saw the railroad men as a collection of myopic and unintelligent executives who could not have survived year to year without government subsidy. Instead of a monstrous kraken, he suggested a better analogy would be “a group of fat men in an Octopus suit fighting over the controls” of a train going off the rails…

Governing (@GOVERNING) talks with White about lessons for today’s infrastructure programs: “Breaking the Myth About America’s ‘Great’ Railroad Expansion.”

See also: “Years of Delays, Billions in Overruns: The Dismal History of Big Infrastructure” “These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does.”

* Collis Huntington (lead investor in the Central Pacific Railroad) to “Doc” Durant (V.P., and operating head of the Union Pacific Railroad) in 1862

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As we learn from our mistakes, we might recall that it was on this date in 1845 that President James K. Polk, citing “Manifest Destiny” in a State of the Union message, proposed that the United States should aggressively expand into the West.

It was the 22nd anniversary of President James Monroe‘s declaration of the New World as a sphere of influence off-limits to intervention by Old World (colonial) powers, and suggesting that any such incursion would be deemed an act of aggression against the U.S. From 1850, this policy has been known as “the Monroe Doctrine.”

American Progress (1872) by John Gast is an allegorical representation of the modernization of the new west. (source)

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