This is more David’s department than mine, so if this observation is all wet, I’m happy to take correction. But in recent weeks, I’ve been thinking about the fate of the railroads in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Like the auto companies today, the railroads of the late nineteenth century received huge subsidies, often in the form of free land adjoining new track. Like GM and Chrysler, most of those subsidized railroads went belly up – not despite the government subsidies, but partly because of them.
That sounds bizarre, but it isn’t. Allegedly friendly governments offer their business patrons a killing embrace – do this or that, and we’ll give you more money or land or trade protection than you could possibly ask. The subsidies are so generous, responsible corporate managers will do pretty much anything to get them. Over time, the corporations acquire more and more skill at pleasing the relevant government officials – and lose the ability to please their customers. The railroads laid track and built stations in places where the demand for transport could not match the supply; today’s GM is striving to build “green” cars that consumers may not buy. Insolvency is the inevitable consequence of such business decisions. So it was a century ago with railroads; so it is today with America’s auto companies. Perhaps the banks are next . . .