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Conservatives never change

4 August 2013

It’s nothing serious, but having to be on some drugs the last week, I’ve mostly been sitting home reading.  Looking for something lengthy, I worked my way through  David McCullough’s 1977 The Path Between The Seas:  The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870 -1914.  Leaving aside McCullough’s defense of the United States government’s massive intrusion into the internal affairs of foreign states and the chicanery involved in creating the “independent” Republic of Panama, what stands out is the scale of the U.S. government investment.  The United States government ended up paying more to build the Canal than they spent for the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican War “indemnity”, the Gadsten Puchase and the Alaska Purchase (as well as the cash shelled out to annex Hawai’i) combined.

“Private enterprise” spectacularly failed — even with massive government assistance.  What got the Canal going was a commitment by the U.S. government to invest in not just land and

Damn commie... paying a living wage and providing for the health, safety and recreation of the workers.

Damn commie… paying a living wage and providing for the health, safety and recreation of the workers.

machinery (leading in itself to huge technical and industrial advances for U.S. industry), but in human resources.  We have all benefited from the “socialist” investment in public health that made it possible to live in the tropics with the expectation that we would NOT be exposed regularly to malaria or yellow fever or plague, and — for a short time — the Republican administration of William Howard Taft created what might be considered almost a “workers’ paradise” (at least for the Americans… the West Indian workers had second-class conditions and terrible housing, but still enjoyed much better benefits and working conditions than most workers would have expected at the time.

That the Panama Canal would pay for itself — not only indirectly in the huge advances in technology and medicine and lower shipping costs — but directly though user fees  was obvious to everyone.  Which still didn’t prevent conservatives from complaining about government spending, even when it was for their own good.

To some visitors it seemed that perhaps everyone was having too good a time, that a little too much was being done at government expense.  Others worried more over what the future effect might be of so efficient and apparently so successful a demonstration of socialism.  In the largest of all modern enterprises, reporters were writing, not one man at the top, no one at any level, was working for profit.  Visiting bankers and business people when home to report that the government-run Panama Railroad was a “model of efficiency and economy in every department.”  No railroad in the United States was better equipped with safety devices.  No private contractor in the world was feeding laborers so well as the I.C.C. [Inter-oceanic Canal Commission]  In every phase of employer-employee relations the I.C.C. was more liberal than any private concern of the day, as several publications had already emphasized.  The government ran the Tivoli Hotel, very well and at a profit.  The steamship line between new York and Colón, also government-run, was earning a profit of some $150,000 a year.

What were to be the consequences when the canal workers, spoiled by such paternalism, came home again?

When these well paid, lightly worked, well and cheaply fed men return to their native land [warned a New York banker], they will form a powerful addition to the Socialist party . . . By their votes and the enormous following they can rally to their standard, they will force the government to take over the public utilities, if not all the large corporations, of the country.  They will force the adoption of government standards of work, wages and cost of living as exemplified in the work on the Canal.

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