Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Another Great Depression?

Any serious student of American transportation knows that by the year 1900 railroads had achieved a rich corruption beyond the confines of a blog post. They routinely passed through bankruptcy and emerged, 'healthy' with a third again as much debt as when they entered. After 1910 the interurban trackage in the US doubled but none of that new investment ever paid a dime in profits. By 1920 we had a half again as much railroad trackage as we needed, even after the fierce government slashing of the First World War, and in the 20s the steam railroads built massive new terminals and servicing facilities for the traffic they expected to serve.

All of this happened after the automobile, truck, and bus emerged, between 1900 and 1910, as the new transportation paradigm. Is it really so amazing that most railroads saw business drop by 90% at some point in the 30s? Do we really need a clever one-size-fits-all explanation?

Could this happen again? The solipsistic US ("We are the largest market in the world") has largely ignored the changing world situation for- oh, say- about 40 years. Could the end of happy motoring, as Jim Kunstler calls it, mean we'll grow our own vegetables and mend our own clothes?

Only if you're smart. Social Security provides a buffer for the basic economy. Bank deposits are insured. There's plenty to do in fighting Global Warming.

But, as the song says, it's been a long time comin', and it will be a long time gone.

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