Railroad historian says California is on wrong track
Stanford professor Richard White, author of 'Railroaded,' voices his staunch opposition to California's high-speed train
(Page 2 of 2)
A: We're still dealing with the consequences of what the railroads set in motion. They’re a disaster politically and environmentally. They begin modern American corruption, when corporations infiltrate the political system and make politics an instrument of corporate policy.Skip to next paragraph
'Topsy' author Michael Daly discusses the unfortunate life story of a famous elephant
National Book Critics Circle select 'Americanah,' 'Five Days at Memorial' as winners
Jane Lynch will co-write a children's book on bullying
Helen Oyeyemi takes on a new fairy tale in 'Boy, Snow, Bird'
North Korean dictators: also successful children's book authors?
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
My argument in the book is that this is not a happy story.
Q: What do you say to skeptics who will say you're just another left-leaning academic bashing capitalism?
A: This is a book that proceeds mostly by quoting the people who did it. They make a far better case for what happened then I did. It's full of quotes, oftentimes very funny, about how they invent this kind of corporate capitalism.
If you don't believe me, the book is full of footnotes. For me footnotes are what give me protection. It's like smell to a skunk.
What’s interesting is that I'm attacked sometimes as being a leftist, which I am, and I am often attacked as being too conservative by people who want subsidies for these large infrastructure projects.
Q: You're not flattering about the brainpower of Leland Stanford, the railroad baron whose name graces your own university. What did you find out about him?
A: Stanford was not the sharpest tool in the shed. A lot of this stuff has to be explained to him.
His wife Jane realized exactly what was in his papers and she destroyed them all, but the story is in the papers of other people.
Q: What have your overlords at Stanford thought of all this?
A: I don’t think they really suspected that he was much more than how he's portrayed in the book.
Stanford University has been very nice to me, but I will never speak at Founders Day.
Q: How have your findings affected your perspective on the California bullet train project, which is estimated to cost almost $100 billion?
The writing of the book led me to question it in the ways I wouldn’t have before. This looks like pretty much like transcontinental railroads: people demanding a huge public subsidy for a railroad that will be extraordinarily expensive.
The public seems to be taking all the risk, and the gain will go to the contractors and people who build it. What they’re trying to do is make hard questions go away through all this gauzy public relations about how this is the future.
Q: How should the public look at projects like this?
A: You should be very leery of giving public money to large corporations on the promise that everything will be fine. The legislation has to be carefully written, and you should never have it that all the risk is public and all the gain is private.
Often the private sector pretty much protects itself and is confident that the public will come in and bail them out if things goes wrong. These public-private kinds of endeavors very often will lead to an exploitation of the public.
Randy Dotinga is a Monitor correspondent.