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  • The Best Transportation System in the World: Railroads, Trucks, Airlines, and American Public Policy in the Twentieth Century
  • Matthew W. Roth (bio)
The Best Transportation System in the World: Railroads, Trucks, Airlines, and American Public Policy in the Twentieth Century. By Mark H. Rose, Bruce E. Seely, Paul F. Barrett. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2006. Pp. xxvi+318. $49.95.

Transportation by its very nature denotes connection, the movement of goods and people from one place to another, and its meanings are most deeply revealed in relation to matters larger than transportation itself: Who are those people? Where is all that freight coming from? The enduring value [End Page 799] of George Rogers Taylor’s The Transportation Revolution (1952), for instance, depends significantly on its treatment of the economic and social changes unleashed by antebellum developments in canals, railroads, and steam navigation.

What, then, to make of this thickly researched work that bores in closely and exclusively on the federal policies governing rail, truck, and air transport in the middle sixty years of the twentieth century? It fulfills admirably the first duty of the monograph by assembling, integrating, and presenting in condensed form the fruits of decades in the archives: a vast record of testimony, legal proceedings, regulatory findings, commission reports, legislative battles, agency deliberations, and presidential papers. By dwelling so resolutely within the Beltway, however, the main message of the book runs the risk of tautology: the deployment of transportation technology “rested on distinctly political decisions made in political arenas. In virtually every discussion of transportation innovation, regulation, and deregulation, we find that politics was in the driver’s seat” (p. xii).

By “politics,” Mark Rose, Bruce Seely, and Paul Barrett mean the wishes of federal officials. What “politics” steered toward after 1920 was a “regulatory regime” segregated by mode, with different rules and administrative apparatus for rail, truck, and air. By subsidizing highway-building the government aided truckers; by withholding subsidies it constrained railroads; and by mandating pricing methods and such operational matters as which cities an airline could service and which type of trucking firms could accept certain kinds of freight, the government determined not only the winners and the losers, but even who could play the game. The idea of deregulation as a spur to general economic growth only gained traction during the 1950s, under President Dwight Eisenhower. (Thus at a time when a sharply expanding economy apparently suffered little at the hands of a regulatory regime that structured the markets for transportation. Or did it suffer? Such questions are not considered.)

Within its tight interpretive focus, the fact-laden narrative sheds abundant light on the federal government and transportation. The first two chapters follow the futile efforts of academic economists and their public sector clients to restructure the railroads, first by consolidation of the rail sector itself and then by coordination among rail and other modes of transport. The next two chapters survey the regulation of airlines through the early 1970s and the postwar regulation of truck and rail. Chapters 5 through 8 offer highly granular accounts of the efforts to deregulate transportation under the direction of Presidents Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and Carter. The final chapter is a provisional look at the effects of deregulation through the mid-1990s. This volume could serve as a virtual encyclopedia on the federal government and transportation during the period of study, with seemingly every report and every statute rendered in meticulous and commendably jargon-free mini-narratives. [End Page 800] .

The Best Transportation System in the World is not a book for students of economic theory or the history of economic thought, who have long considered the role of the state in constructing markets and transactions. Though I do not believe the word “cartel” appears in these pages, the managers and executives of transportation firms, abetted by their counterparts in the public sector, seem to have manifested the classic cartel behavior of defined competition within established price umbrellas. Nor do the authors engage directly the somewhat dissimilar views of other historians who have explored some of the same material. In Prophets of Regulation (1984), Thomas McCraw concluded that the preeminent factor in defining any regulatory...


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