Thursday, February 7, 2013

Book Review: Railroaded

Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011).

For those who grew up on visions of mighty titans of industry sweeping all before them as they laid down bands of steel across a vast continent, this book comes as something of a disappointment. Richard White’s thesis is that the men who built the transcontinental railroads were not the mighty capitalists or ruthlessly efficient robber barons of the right and left’s imaginations, but were, in fact, startlingly inept – yet for all that they helped to usher in modern America. These men were financiers skilled in the arts of fraud, kickbacks, and bribery; they knew very little about running a railroad. The roads they led relied on massive subsidies from the federal government and most of them went into receivership within a few decades of being built. Yet America’s economy and politics would never be the same. Thus the transcontinentals were, in Richard White’s pointed phrase, “transformative failures."

If this seems paradoxical at a glance, it is only because of our unfounded assumptions about the nature of American development. Americans, as exemplified by the transcontinentals, did not only march triumphantly toward modernity; they failed their way to it. Using the personal papers of the railroading elite, White takes us into the bowels of the companies, revealing that they were not ruthlessly efficient corporations, but disjointed fiefdoms unable to bring order to their operations. This is at once the heart and the weakness of White’s book, as he delves into an endless series of unscrupulous financial manipulations, driving his argument to the point of redundancy. He is fascinated by the zombie-like quality of the railroads as they lurched along on the edge of financial disaster, threatening the nation’s economy and making liberal use of federal government support – all while earning fortunes for a select few. The parallels to contemporary events are unavoidable.

Countering the notion that the railroads were smartly run, in a convincing conclusion White argues that the transcontinentals should not have been built how and when they were. They preceded demand rather than meeting it, wasting capital and producing economic inefficiencies. White contends that the roads encouraged artificial settlement in areas that could not sustain the agricultural practices and population densities the railroads counted on to make their business profitable. They also hastened the subjugation of Indians, enabled the extermination of the buffalo, and produced environmental degradation.

Yet for all their “dumb growth” and horrible mismanagement, the railroads transformed American life. They produced new battles over space and time, as regions previously distant from one another were suddenly economically close because of a rail line, while a place that was geographically quite close might become far because of the absence of a rail link. The transcontinentals gave birth to the modern corporate lobby and the symbiotic nexus between big business and an activist federal government. After the rise of the railroads, it became impossible to maintain the fiction that the economy was not fundamentally political, for better or worse. The men who ran the transcontinentals transformed America not because they were ruthlessly competent but in spite of the fact that they were not. In this process of transformative failure, White sees a fundamental feature of modern American life.

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