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Posts Tagged ‘transportation

“These days, the bigger the company, the less you can figure out what it does”*…

 

Late 19th-century Americans loved railroads, which seemed to eradicate time and space, moving goods and people more cheaply and more conveniently than ever before. And they feared railroads because in most of the country it was impossible to do business without them.

Businesses, and the republic itself, seemed to be at the mercy of the monopoly power of railroad corporations. American farmers, businessmen and consumers thought of competition as a way to ensure fairness in the marketplace. But with no real competitors over many routes, railroads could charge different rates to different customers. This power to decide economic winners and losers threatened not only individual businesses but also the conditions that sustained the republic.

That may sound familiar. As a historian of that first Gilded Age, I see parallels between the power of the railroads and today’s internet giants like Verizon and Comcast. The current regulators – the Federal Communications Commission’s Republican majority – and many of its critics both embrace a solution that 19th-century Americans tried and dismissed: market competition…

The current controversy about the monopolistic power of internet service providers echoes those concerns from the first Gilded Age. As anti-monopolists did in the 19th century, advocates of an open internet argue that regulation will advance competition by creating a level playing field for all comers, big and small, resulting in more innovation and better products. (There was even a radical, if short-lived, proposal to nationalize high-speed wireless service.)

However, no proposed regulations for an open internet address the existing power of either the service providers or the “Big Five” internet giants: Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft. Like Standard Oil, they have the power to wring enormous advantages from the internet service providers, to the detriment of smaller competitors.

The most important element of the debate – both then and now – is not the particular regulations that are or are not enacted. What’s crucial is the wider concerns about the effects on society. The Gilded Age’s anti-monopolists had political and moral concerns, not economic ones. They believed, as many in the U.S. still do, that a democracy’s economy should be judged not only – nor even primarily – by its financial output. Rather, success is how well it sustains the ideals, values and engaged citizenship on which free societies depend.

When monopoly threatens something as fundamental as the free circulation of information and the equal access of citizens to technologies central to their daily life, the issues are no longer economic.

Stanford historian Richard White unpacks an important historical analogue; read it in full at “For tech giants, a cautionary tale from 19th century railroads on the limits of competition.”

[Image above: source]

* Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things

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As we wonder if The Invisible Hand is giving us the finger, we might recall that it was on this date in 1852 that Henry Wells and William G. Fargo joined with several other investors to launch their eponymously-named cross-country freight business.  The California gold rush had created an explosive new need, which Wells, Fargo and other “pony express” and stage lines leapt to meet.  It was after the Civil War, in 1866, when Wells, Fargo acquired many of their competitors, that it became the dominant supplier.  (Ever flexible, they adapted again three years later, when the transcontinental railroad was finished.)

From it’s earliest days, it also functioned as a bank, factoring the shipments of gold that it carried.  Indeed, when Wells, Fargo exited the freight business as a result of government nationalization of freight during World War I, the bank (which merged with Nevada National in the first of a series of “transformative transactions”) continued to operate as “Wells, Fargo,” as indeed it does (albeit under unrecognizably evolved ownership) today.

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Written by LW

March 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Life is a highway”*…

 

In the beginning, the Lincoln Highway was more an idea than a highway. But it was a very powerful idea.

On its dedication—Halloween, 1913—the towns and cities along the 3,300-mile route erupted in what the San Francisco Chronicle called“spontaneous expressions of gratification”—a wave of municipal celebrations animated by “the spirit of the great national boulevard.” The governor of Wyoming declared a day of “old-time jollification … and general rejoicing” that included, in a town called Rawlings, the erection of an enormous pyramid of wool. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, residents enjoyed a festive shower of locally made Quaker Oats.

The Lincoln Highway, which ran from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, gets credit as the first transcontinental road of the automobile age, but it was no highway in the modern sense; when it was dedicated, it was more like a loosely affiliated collection of paved, gravel, stone, and dirt paths, some recently trailblazed through the trackless rural West. Its boosters—a collection of auto industry execs and ex-politicians led by an auto-parts entrepreneur named Carl Fisher—were gifted promoters, and they successfully sold America on the notion that a sea-to-shining-sea motorway could both unite the nation and sell a lot of cars…

Head on down the road with CityLab On The Road.

* Tom Cochrane

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As we put the top down, we might spare a thought for Gebhard Jaeger; he died on this date in 1959.  An inventor, engineer, and manufacturer, he designed and patented the first cement mixer in 1905, then went on to add other patents (including, in 1928, the mixer truck) and build a successful manufacturing company equipping the suppliers who served road builders and construction contractors through the road and building construction booms of the 20th century.

From American Builder (March 1925)

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Written by LW

September 11, 2017 at 1:01 am

Carry that load…

From Photographer Alain Delorme, an extraordinary slideshow featuring things on the move in China.

(Thanks, Dan Sturges)

As we rebalance our loads, we might recall that it was on this date in 1998, five days after the company was formed by $37 billion merger, that DaimlerChrysler first traded in the New York Stock Exchange; at that moment, DaimlerChrysler was the fifth-largest auto manufacturer in the world (after General Motors, Ford, Toyota and Volkswagen).  The plan was for further growth, via the creation of a single powerhouse car company that could compete in all markets, all over the world… But in the event, Chrysler lost so much money– $1.5 billion in 2006 alone– that in 2007, Daimler paid a private equity firm to take the company off its hands.  Two years later, in 2009, Chrysler filed for bankruptcy (again); in order to stay afloat, it merged with Italian automaker Fiat.

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