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How good is the govt at picking winners?

July 28, 2009

This is from a paper of historian Burton Folsom:

America’s early experience with the steamship industry provides an illustrative case. By the 1840s,the technology of steam-powered water transport had reached the point where it became practical to build large ocean-going vessels, and steamships began plying the route between New York City and Liverpool, England. An enterprising fellow named Edward K. Collins approached the U.S. Congress with a plan to develop a steamship fleet that could compete with Britain’s Cunard Company. Since the Cunard operation was subsidized by the British government, Collins asked Congress to provide him with a grant of $3 million to underwrite the construction of five vessels and a yearly supplement of $385,000 so he could strive to best Cunard’s fare of $200 per passenger and its rates for carrying freight and mail.

Playing skillfully on congressional fears about British domination of the transatlantic trade, and promising that his ships could serve as the basis of a merchant marine fleet in the event of war, Collins got his money. He then proceeded to build four very large and luxurious ships, instead of the five smaller vessels provided for in the agreement, and he took far longer than anticipated to get his fleet into operation.

Collins ran his ships on the same schedule as Cunard, sailing every two weeks, and he often did beat Cunard’s crossing time by one day, though at considerably higher operating costs. But while he had promised Congress that his yearly subsidy could eventually be phased out, he was soon lobbying for annual increases to about $500,000, $600,000, $700,000, and then to more than $800,000 per year.

Cornelius Vanderbilt, who had made his mark as an operator of river steamboats, approached Congress with a proposal for an “Atlantic ferry,” promising to match Collins’s two-week sailing schedule at half the cost of Collins’s subsidy. Congress debated Vanderbilt’s proposal. But it doubted his ability. Having made a commitment to Collins—and by now a considerable investment as well—Congress turned Vanderbilt down.

Vanderbilt was undeterred. He went into operation without a subsidy, using privately financed ships, set up a self-insurance arrangement by which he was able to save on payments to outside insurers, and ran his ships at slower speeds to save fuel. He also reduced the fare, and he invented a new, cheaper passenger class, by which people could travel below decks, in what was called steerage, for as little as $30. Vanderbilt’s “sardine class” made it possible for many immigrants to come to America.

After a year, Vanderbilt’s operation was flourishing, and Collins, in serious trouble from competition with Vanderbilt, went to Congress to ask that his subsidy be raised, yet again, to more than $850,000. Collins managed to persuade the congressmen to conclude that since they started with Collins, it would be disloyal to take his money away now.

But Collins recognized that each time he went back to Congress for more money, the vote was closer. He decided that if he couldn’t beat Vanderbilt on price, he would concentrate on beating his crossing time, demonstrating that the Collins line clearly offered the most efficient way to get from Liverpool to New York City. This strategy had its dangers. Long beset with maintenance problems because their engines were too large for their hulls, Collins’s ships began to feel the strain of this high-speed policy. Two of the ships—half his fleet—sank, killing almost 500 passengers, and Collins faced the humiliation of going back to Congress to beg for an emergency $1 million appropriation to construct a replacement vessel.

Again Congress funded him. But the new ship, The Adriatic, was so hastily and poorly constructed that it had to be sold at auction after its first voyage—at a $900,000 loss. When Collins went back to Congress for still more money to build yet another ship, he was finally turned down.

It is interesting to look at the reaction in Congress after being embarrassed again and again by the subsidies to Collins. Senator Judah Benjamin of Louisiana said, “I believe [the Collins line] has been our most miserably managed.” Senator Robert Hunter of Virginia went even further. “The whole system was wrong,” he said. “It ought to have been left, like any other trade, to competition.” Senator John Thompson of Kentucky insisted, “Give neither this line nor any other line a subsidy. Let the Collins line die. I want a tabula rasa . . . a new beginning.”

Collins had his subsidy stripped and had to compete head to head—unsupported—with Vanderbilt. Within a year, Collins went bankrupt, and Vanderbilt was the dominant force on the seas from the American side.

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