Iron Empires

From The Wall Street Journal:

The public image of the robber barons has always been a barometer of how America thinks about wealth. Were they financiers or swindlers? Builders or monopolists? In the Progressive Era, the muckraker Ida Tarbell cast John D. Rockefeller as a ruthless monopolist, and Matthew Josephson’s compelling but one-sided Depression-era tome, “The Robber Barons,” scorched the lot of them. In recent decades serious biographers have reappraised the turn-of-the-century moguls and found more to like. Could the wheel be poised to turn again? With inequality considered a public enemy, a reappraisal might be ripe.

In “Iron Empires: Robber Barons, Railroads, and the Making of Modern America,” Michael Hiltzik pokes among the ghostly bones of tycoons past but doesn’t generally offer a new interpretation. Mr. Hiltzik, a journalist with the Los Angeles Times, presents a colorful cast in conventional terms. Once again we hear that the railroad barons made money by watering stock (meaning that they inflated it, as in watering cattle), swindling rivals, buying judges and milking decrepit properties.

Daniel Drew was vaunted for his ability to manipulate shares. He played with the float of the Erie Railroad “with the ease of a child inflating and deflating a toy balloon,” as Mr. Hiltzik puts it. For unalloyed greed, it was hard to top George Pullman, the sleeping-car magnate, who set up a “beautiful” company town but gouged his underpaid workers on rent. When a depression set in, Pullman cut wages 30%; somehow the workers’ rent was unaffected, while corporate dividends rose.

Labor unions objected, but they were weak. The most serious threat emanated from the barons themselves, who recklessly overbuilt. The finagling Jay Gould ruined the Union Pacific, the Civil War-era trunk line chartered and subsidized by Congress. Talk about a fiduciary! Gould thought nothing of (a) destroying the company with an expensive acquisition while (b) personally wheeling and dealing in the stock while also (c) serving on the board. The result was redundant tracks, ruinous rate-cutting and repeated waves of bankruptcy. Mr. Hiltzik likens the barons to rival duchies in Napoleonic Europe, jousting and plotting but incapable of asserting order.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Sorry if you encounter a paywall)

PG is reading The Transcontinental Railroad, which covers a time a bit earlier than the books mentioned in the OP, and enjoying it greatly. The politics of the time after the Civil War were corrupt, rough and tumble and it was amazing when anything involving the federal government actually worked out.