Politicians love a good historical analogy. That’s why Joe Biden has compared his infrastructure law to the construction of the interstate highway system and the transcontinental railroad. The president, of course, means such comparisons in a flattering light. For those who have studied these revolutionary policy choices, however, the consequences are not so unblemished.

Ten years ago, historian Richard White catalogued the greed and ineptitude of railroad executives and the policymakers who blindly enabled their schemes. In Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, he explored the history of corporations that have gone down in American myth as corrupt but ultimately productive and necessary.

White argues that the transcontinental railroad companies were not necessary for stitching the young country together; they were simply an example of “dumb growth” that hurt more than it helped. Sped along by state subsidy and paid-for politicians, these corporations built in places where there were no markets. They never made money. The entire enterprise was a vast Ponzi scheme, and its periodic turmoil threw the nation into repeated economic crisis. Their selfish flailing scourged wildlife, oppressed Native Americans, and spread new settlements to areas where they could not be sustained (and after long suffering were not).


Instead of an all-powerful “octopus” engulfing the…

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