beaten tracks

Talk of how we’ve entered a new “gilded age” tends to center on questions of inequality, but it has also led a number of people to draw analogies (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) between the old Gilded Age and our time. I remember during the internet boom of the late 90s hearing people say that the internet – or the information superhighway, as they said back then – was a lot like the 19th century railroad: annihilation of time and space, generation of great fortunes, boom and bust, and so on. But lately it’s been looking like the 19th century railroad might be more like the 21st century railroad.

There’s political influence and looming battles over regulation:

Two western railroad companies are donating an unusually high amount — more than $1 million — to the Denver National Convention (DNC) host committee — at the same time that railroad regulation proponents say they’re close, for the first time in decades, to winning additional oversight of the rail industry.

The companies offering up their political support include Union Pacific (UP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s (BNSF). Nebraska-based UP disclosed its $1 million donation to Democratic convention organizers; company officials have said that an additional donation has been made to the Republican National Convention, which will be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul, though they haven’t revealed that amount.

And there are likely to be fights over rates ahead:

Meanwhile, the railroad industry’s long-standing antitrust exemption has attracted the attention of lawmakers. They seek to eliminate the exemption and closely examine the rates railroads charge to haul freight, which the industry says would cripple its expansion at a critical time.

The railroads’ rate structure has also drawn the ire of some of their customers: Nearly 30 antitrust lawsuits have been filed against major railroads in recent months, including one by agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland last month, alleging collusion and price-fixing.

For some lawmakers and advocacy groups, today’s rail industry recalls that of the late 1800s, when the only ceiling on rates was the limit of a rail baron’s avarice. The railroads say today’s rates are reasonable and reflect something the industry has not had in decades: pricing power.

Meanwhile, what’s the Gilded Age internet? The telephone. Seriously, that’s a very well-drawn analogy, from the story of the replacement of “the people’s telephone” (or “telephone 2.0”) with “telephone 1.0”, to the sobering concluding speculation. I couldn’t help but think of net neutrality while reading it.

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