David R. Henderson  

Robert Caro's Hands-On Discovery of Public Choice

New Thinking in Macroeconomics... From the weekend's op-ed pages...
Caro had a further epiphany about power in the early '60s. He had moved on to Newsday by then, where he discovered that he had a knack for investigative reporting, and was assigned to look into a plan by Robert Moses to build a bridge from Rye, N.Y., across Long Island Sound to Oyster Bay. "This was the world's worst idea," he told me. "The piers would have had to be so big that they'd disrupt the tides." Caro wrote a series exposing the folly of this scheme, and it seemed to have persuaded just about everyone, including the governor, Nelson Rockefeller. But then, he recalled, he got a call from a friend in Albany saying, "Bob, I think you need to come up here." Caro said: "I got there in time for a vote in the Assembly authorizing some preliminary step toward the bridge, and it passed by something like 138-4. That was one of the transformational moments of my life. I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: 'Everything you've been doing is baloney. You've been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here's a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don't have the slightest idea how he got it.' "

The lesson was repeated in 1965, when Caro had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and took a class in land use and urban planning. "They were talking one day about highways and where they got built," he recalled, "and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: 'This is completely wrong. This isn't why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don't find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.' "

This is from Charles McGrath's excellent article, "Robert Caro's Big Dig," New York Times Magazine, April 12, 2012. Robert Caro's first blockbuster was about Robert Moses. Caro went on to take multiple years on each of his next three books on Lyndon Johnson: Path to Power, Means of Ascent, and Master of the Senate. I think I recall Tom Hazlett writing, in a review of Path to Power in Reason in the early 1980s, that the book was a great example of applied public choice. [Those weren't his exact words but that was the gist.]

Why an article on Caro now? Because the next installment in the series is due out any day. It covers LBJ from 1958 through the Democratic convention in L.A. in 1960, when he lost to JFK, through his vice-presidency and JFK's assassination, to LBJ's first state of the union.

If you have never read Caro and you like seeing an incredibly careful reporter/historian at work, you're in for a treat. My favorite two were Path to Power and Means of Ascent.

One of the items highlighted in the McGrath article is "a brilliantly evocative section about how electrification changed the lives of people in the Hill Country" in Texas. It's Chapter 27 of Path to Power. It's titled "Sad Irons." If you read it, you'll see why it has that title. Caro uses it to tell why some many Hill Country people were so loyal to LBJ. As a young Congressman, he helped bring them electrification: it changed their lives. I once gave a copy to a young female officer in my class who was intensely curious about everything. She had asked me why there was such a dramatic movement of women into the labor force in the mid-20th century. I attributed to labor-saving devices in the home and gave her that passage as an extreme example.

HT: Tyler Cowen.

COMMENTS (7 to date)
David Boaz writes:

I recall Bill Niskanen saying that if he ever went back into teaching, he would use Path to Power as a textbook in a course on public choice or maybe political economy.

David R. Henderson writes:

@David Boaz,
Interesting thought. I’m wondering if you could get a lot of the same value by using a few chapters. I certainly think his story about how LBJ turned himself into a millionaire by doing a favor for the FCC is a contender.

David R. Henderson writes:

@David Boaz,
Interesting thought. I’m wondering if you could get a lot of the same value by using a few chapters. I certainly think his story about how LBJ turned himself into a millionaire by doing a favor for the FCC is a contender.

Roger Magyar writes:

Is Robert McGrath the brother of Charles McGrath?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Roger Magyar,
Oops. Correction made. Thanks.

Mike Rulle writes:

I never understood, and still do not, how Robert Moses exercised such power for so long. I will need to read Caro's writing on him.

John Fembup writes:

Was Robert Moses fully to blame for all that? Or was Robert Moses just the name of the person who was inevitably going to arrive on the scene some day?

I think the latter.

After all, how many Americans are there who, after supporting or even advocating transfers of power to the government for "worthy" goals, are shocked - shocked - one day to discover those powers being used for goals they don't find so worthy.

If you build the mechanism, someone will come along and use it.

What Constitution protect us from that?

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