Biden on Government

From the New York Daily News, quoting VP Biden: (via Maggies Farm)

Every single great idea that has marked the 21st century, the 20th century and the 19th century has required government vision and government incentive

Wow, its hard to believe that even a hard core statist believes this in the face of historical evidence, but there it is.  The example  (and remember even a single correct example does not support the word "every") is an interesting one:

"In the middle of the Civil War you had a guy named Lincoln paying people $16,000 for every 40 miles of track they laid across the continental United States. "¦ No private enterprise would have done that for another 35 years."

I am actually stunned that he is historically literate enough to get the second part of this right, that there was in fact a single transcontinental railroad, James J Hill's Great Northern, that completed its line without government subsidies or land grants.  He even gets the date about right.  A few thoughts:

  • Not mentioned by Biden is the emergence of the entire rest of the US railroad industry, which by 1860 had about 30,000 miles of track, mostly via private initiative.
  • I think the original transcontinental railroad has interesting parallels to the Apollo program -- certainly government action got us into space and a transcontinental railroad faster than private action, but it could be argued that both delayed private initiative in these areas longer than would have occurred without the action.
  • For Lincoln in the Civil War, the transcontinental had as much to do with cementing Union control of California as it did promoting commerce or any other values

Here is my favorite fact -- Every single transcontinental railroad went bankrupt at least once before 1925, except one.  Can you guess which one did not?  Yes, it was the Great Northern, the only one built entirely with private capital.

  • http://www.popehat.com Ken

    It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, isn't it? If you formulate a scheme of government that intrudes into every facet of life, then of course you'll be able to crow that government was involved in "every single great idea." Politicians love to insert themselves into every project, and be seen involved with every development, to take credit for it later. The fact that the people with great ideas did so despite the involvement of government does not prove that they accomplished what they did because of government.

  • http://togetrichisglorious.blogspot.com Colin

    Let's recall how the transcontinental railroad worked out (via wikipedia):

    Each railroad was subsidized $16,000 per mile ($9,940/km) built over an easy grade, $32,000 per mile ($19,880/km) in the high plains, and $48,000 per mile ($29,830/km) in the mountains. To allow the railroads to raise additional money Congress provided additional assistance to the railroad companies in the form of land grants of federal lands. They were granted 400-foot right-of-ways plus ten square miles of land (ten sections) adjacent to the track for every mile of track built.

    ...Because of the nature of the way money was given to the companies building the railroad, they were sometimes known to sabotage each other's railroads to claim that land as their own. When they first came close to meeting, they changed paths to be nearly parallel, so that each company could claim subsidies from the government over the same plot of land. Fed up with the fighting, Congress eventually declared where and when the railways should meet.

    ...Both railroads soon instituted extensive upgrade projects to build better bridges, viaducts, dugways, heavier duty rails, stronger ties, better road beds etc. The original track had often been laid as fast as possible with only secondary attention to maintenance and longevity. Getting the subsidies was initially the primary incentive, upgrades of all kinds were routinely required in the coming years.

    Not exactly a smooth operation.

  • caseyboy

    Government innovation, an original oxymoron of the first order.

    Joe Biden just keeps them coming. Well you have to cut him some slack. He has been dependent on the Government his entire adult life. Of course he thinks they are behind all good things.

  • John O.

    One of, if not, most important books I ever read was titled:

    "How Capitalism Saved America"

    It goes through basic explanations of what happened at various points in American history from the colonial founding to modern day and the problems between government intervention and pure entrepreneurial driven capitalism. And it is of NO big surprise that the most focused issue was the building of the Transcontinental Railroad through government subsidies that were contrasting the Great Northern Railroad.

    -- John O.

  • DrTorch

    The Wright Bros had government funding? I did not know that.

    A. G. Bell?

    Thomas Edison?

    Philo Farnsworth?

    Henry Ford, Ransom Olds, David Buick, James Packard?

  • Ignoramus

    "I invented the internet."

    Biden's statement is profoundly stupid.

    Even the NYC subway was built by competing private companies (Whence BMT, IRT and IND). The promoters made their money by selling choice real estate.

    Our landing on the moon actually wasn't the proverbial moonshot. Instead, Grumman had it all figured out before they got the necessary funding from JFK to build. I'd bet the same was true for Tang too.

    I'm a fan of the possibilities in thorium reactors. I'm convinced we got stuck on a uranium/plutonium track for military reasons -- post Jimmy Carter we couldn't get off it. Today we're not pursuing thorium because there's no form at the DMV bureaucracy to register such a reactor. Am I wrong?

  • Ignoramus

    Not even Tang:

    Not even Tang:

    "Named after the tangerine the original orange-flavored Tang was formulated by William A. Mitchell for General Foods Corporation in 1957 and first marketed in powdered form in 1959. It was initially intended as a breakfast drink, but sales were poor until NASA used it on Gemini flights in 1965. Since then it was closely associated with the U.S. manned spaceflight program, leading to the misconception that Tang was invented for the space program."

  • Ignoramus

    Not even Tang:

    "Named after the tangerine the original orange-flavored Tang was formulated by William A. Mitchell for General Foods Corporation in 1957 and first marketed in powdered form in 1959. It was initially intended as a breakfast drink, but sales were poor until NASA used it on Gemini flights in 1965. Since then it was closely associated with the U.S. manned spaceflight program, leading to the misconception that Tang was invented for the space program."

  • John David Galt

    You know why Obama chose Biden as his running mate, right?

    So the Democrats could have Dan Quayle too.

  • JB

    Dagny Taggart's railroad never went bankrupt either. Just sayin'.

  • Allen

    The transcon wasn't actually the first transcon. There wasn't a railroad crossing of the Missouri River at Omaha until 1872. The first transcontinental railroad connection happened in Starsburg, CO.

    But the real problem with Biden's argument is the idea that it wouldn't have happened without the government. The GN clearly shows it could have. More so, government regulations and meddling really mucked things up for railroads. For example, we may have had a 3rd big transcon today had the government not prevented the Milwaukee Road and CNW from merging. Maybe the privately funded Western Pacific would've been in the mix with another too so that instead of just 2 long haul carriers in the western 1/2 of the US, we might have 3 or 4.

    And if Biden wants to talk about history, government and railroads, how about he take the time to tell people about how the government for a decade or two fought allowing railroads to charge LOWER rates for hauling goods?

  • Mesa Econoguy

    I warned ya.

    Delaware...state...etc.