Why Now?
Tuesday, February 01, 2005
  Public Versus Private Projects
Wedding of the Waters: Building the Erie Canal was a story on NPR's All Things Considered, February 1, 2005.

In his new book Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation, author Peter Bernstein writes that the building of the Erie Canal in the early 19th century helped shape the political, social and economic landscape of the young American republic. Robert Siegel talks to Bernstein about the building of the canal and its impact on America, east and west.

A chunk of my family history is tied to the Erie Canal, so I was interested in the segment on a personal level, but Mr. Bernstein makes a relevant political point for today.

At the beginning of the 19th century there were two big canal projects planned: George Washington's plan for a private canal down in Virginia and DeWitt Clinton's public project in New York.

The Washington project went bankrupt, but Clinton's Eire Canal was built and opened the American West to settlement, while providing the East with its products. The Eire Canal was been replaced by the New York State Barge Canal that, for most of the year, still carries barges traveling from New York City to the Great Lakes and back via the route opened by the government of New York.

The transcontinental railways were financed by grants of public lands, as were all of the big utility projects. Being awarded a monopoly for services that the public soon begins to depend on, is a license to print money. It also reduces risk for the consumers as well as the companies because of government regulation.

Ask California about electricity deregulation and the "benefits of competition".

Airline travel deregulation was certainly beneficial - to bankruptcy attorneys. [A joke told by an airline pilot on "Car Talk": What's the difference between an airline pilot and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four.]

Look at how well AT&T has responded to competition. Oh yeah, businesses really know how things should be done.

This brings us to Digby's post on Eliot Spitzer and business integrity.

Spitzer is the Attorney General of New York who has been making money for the state hand over fist prosecuting the ne'er-do-wells that the Federal government ignores. His string of prosecutions show exactly how well "voluntary" programs work.

Before anyone starts talking about allowing the market to sort things out, don't, unless you are willing to remove all caps from lawsuits and the limited liability of corporations, because until businesses are subject to criminal and civil liability to their last penny, there is no free market. The free market is regulated by risk, and without total risk there is no free market.


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