Institute on California and the West Railroaded Workshop, Huntington Library, San Marino, CA, July 9, 2011: Capitalism, Counterfactuals, and the National State: Reflections on Richard White's Railroaded

Article excerpt

I approach my remarks with a bit of trepidation. Like many of you in this room, I consider Richard White one of my intellectual heroes; I've been selling his work to political scientists for the past eight years. I teach his writings in my classes at Harvard, and I've had the privilege of seeing parts of this book take shape. I'm tempted, therefore, to spend the next half hour praising the book in the language and undiluted cheer with which the transcontinentals hawked their securities and their bonanza tracts. But I'm not going to do that, in part because I perceive that this session is about not only what White has written and published, but also what he is working on now, namely a synthetic account of U.S. history from 1866 to 1896. This period encompasses what is commonly known as the Gilded Age, though by the time White is done, I suspect we'll perceive it, as we now do the transcontinentals, differently.

Railroaded. It's a beautiful and imposing final product. Before discussing it, let me offer an important caveat; I'll propose another at the conclusion of my remarks. Every concern or lament you're about to hear has one or both of two properties. Either (i) it's a concern that afflicts my own scholarship, so much so that there are pieces I'd like to have back, or (ii) it reflects the kind of shortcoming that is only possible when an author has so transcended the limits of what was heretofore imaginable that weaknesses emerge only in relation to the new standard established. For example, when the sportscaster laments that with Michael Jordan focusing more and more on his defensive play, he isn't dunking with his usual pomp and flair. When your game gets as multidimensional as White's does in Railroaded, it's easy to emphasize the shortcomings that exist only because the performer is bringing a part of artistry into view that neither he nor anyone else has shown you before.

So what are some of contributions of this book? First among them is that Railroaded gives us a new set of lenses for understanding industrial capitalism, particularly infrastructure capitalism, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is not Alfred Chandler's story. (1) and it sure as hell isn't Milton Friedman's, either. (2) Neither the reputed organizational rationality of the railroads nor the claimed economic and social dynamism they supposedly unleashed survives White's exhaustive and careful narrative. The transcontinentals were institutional anarchies. Their founders leeched vast profits from the sick corporate hosts they left for dead. And the railroads overbuilt in ways that collectively harmed millions of Americans in diverse but tangible ways. A counterfactual history--a history that did not happen but certainly could have--is entertained, one that forces us to rethink the way that America modernized, indeed that compels us to rethink the meaning of that modernity.

There is an obvious and tempting tie-in here to recent events. Yet it's too alluring to draw those parallels far beyond their plausible value. Readers will see the same combination of hubris, of shell enterprises or newly created financial instruments, of the oversizing of an industry (then the transcontinentals, now finance) whose contributions to national economic and general welfare were overstated. Today's economic crisis has jolted the academy in pretty important ways, not least by endowing the nascent field of behavioral economics with new legitimacy. I recently joined a behavioral economics group, and besides learning that what now goes by the name of behavioral economics was, thirty years ago, called cognitive psychology, I've also learned that, while promising, much of behavioral economics research misses the point of what just happened. It's absolutely true that cognitive limitations are all around us, worth studying for their own sake, and a necessary part of the story of the past three years or thirty years. Yet, if behavioral economics is going to start making sense of financial crises and the worlds they emerge from and destroy, it's going to have to import the kind of relational perspective found in this book. …