In Olden Times, Government Could Still Do Wrong Right

Is corrupt machine politics OK if it gets things done? Here's a description of turn-of-the-20th-century boss Louis "The Commodore" Kuehnle from Boardwalk Empire, Dennis Nelson Johnson's history of the building of Atlantic City:

He believed the resort needed a larger, permanent Boardwalk and saw to it that a new Boardwalk with steel pilings and girders was constructed. Resort residents, in particular the hotels and shops, were the victims of a telephone monopoly. Kuehnle broke it up by starting an opposing company, which later was controlled by an independent telephone system with reduced rates. The city's electric lighting was inadequate and expensive; the Commodore backed a competing utility and prices came down. Natural gas was selling at $1.25 per 1,000 feet and Kuehnle organized a gas company, which resulted in prices going down to $.90 per 1,000. The local trolley system, important to the convenience of both tourists and residents, was a mess. Kuehnle organized the Central Passenger Railway Company, which was eventually sold to the Atlantic City and Shore Company that gave residents and visitors alike first-rate street and railway service.

The eponymous HBO series is based on Johnson's book -- very loosely, I presume, given that the producers have changed the name of the storied and too-dead-to-sue-for-libel racketeer/politician Nucky Johnson. (Not judging! Just pointing it out.)

Kuehnle's story is a classic case of regulatory capture at the local-developer level. He started out making a fortune in the hotel business. Atlantic County was an unusual and possibly unique region with a fully fledged political/mob machine run by Republicans supported by a largely black electorate. What sticks out in the passage above is that even after he gained control of the local party and the monopoly controls that go with that, Kuehnle retained his business habit. In all these examples except the building of the new boardwalk, his solution was not to continue tinkering with an existing monopoly but to build a competitive product.

Kuehnle was historically corrupt, and as for the titans who built Atlantic City, my impression of the finished product is that they made a place I was highly motivated to get away from. But Kuehnle's approach to providing services seems like a distinct improvement on the governance in most of the places (including late-20th-century Atlantic City) I have lived in. Los Angeles County, where you get all the corruption and none of the competence, seems a lot more like the norm. In my experience only San Francisco mayor Willie Brown fit the once-valued political type described above: venal, jolly figures who occasionally accomplish something in the way of constituent service. The kind of leaders who move you to pay the highest compliment any resident can ever pay to any city: "This shithole could be worse."

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  • ||

    In my experience only San Francisco mayor Willie Brown fit the once-valued political type described above: venal, jolly figures who occasionally accomplish something in the way constituent service. The kind of leaders who move you to pay the highest compliment any resident can ever pay to any city: "This shithole could be worse."

    Hate to say it but -
    Chicago.

  • Ron L||

    And as bad as Willy was, it's been shown it can be worse.
    Note that is not an endorsement; if the asshole were drowning, I'd stick a hose in his mouth and turn on the water.

  • fellcolor||

    It sticks in my throat every time I say it, but yes - Chicago.

  • juris imprudent||

    Lou: Yes, it used to be beautiful - what with the rackets, whoring, guns.

  • ||

    as for the titans who built Atlantic City, my impression of the finished product is that they made a place I was highly motivated to get away from

    AC was once pretty awesome, but those days are past and I doubt they're coming back. Atlantic City was depressing for a reason.

    But I'm definitely looking forward to the HBO Series premiere tomorrow.

  • ||

    Dennis Johnson is one of our great American writers along with Cormic Mccarthy.
    Cant wait for the series.

  • ||

    How's that hunt for the rogue helicopter pilot?

  • ||

    Going pretty well......Almost have him tracked down.Im thinkin he's in Pakistan.

  • Mr Whipple||

    I still have pictures of my Great Grandparents on the beach in AC from 1918.

  • ||

    Maybe ther benevolent dictator type emerges when someone controls the whole place so absolutely that they feel like it's their yard, so they might as well make it a nice place to hang out.

  • George V||

    They do have benevolent dictators. They let the hookers stroll on Pacific Avenue.

  • C-Dog||

    Old school corruption was also more convenient. Paying a small bribe for a business license is a better option than going through the hell hole that is the LA bureaucracy.

  • Cap'n D.A. Dreadnaught Ridgely||

    And now for something completely different...

    (With apologies to W.S. Gilbert)

    Post, O post ye Reason bloggers
    Fill yon libertarian clique;
    While dead horses we be floggers,
    Let us all like pirates speak.
    For this week our long lost brothers
    Now to Hit & Run return,
    And methinks we'll have our druthers.
    Boarding her from stem to stern!

    Here's to Urkobold's vast minions
    And to Grylliaders bold
    Brawling, scrawling their opinions
    Just like in the days of old!

  • ||

    Avast ye whimpering yelps. If'n ye not be wanting to be drinking with Davey Jones this day then open your purse and repeat after me; Help yourself.

  • ||

    I'm looking forward to seeing how they handle prohibition. Will it be shown as the complete disaster it was?

  • ||

    Oh, and arrrrrrr!!!!!

  • Horrible Hugh Akston||

    What ho, me hearties! It may be a condition of me missing eye, but I can spy narry a meaningful difference betwixt payin' a gangster ta undercut a monopoly and payin' taxes to be bullied about by an officious bureaucrat.

  • Dread Pirate Naga||

    Argh! Taktix! Ya landlubber whut deserves the black spot fer yur oversight!

  • Dread Pirate Naga||

    I be currently readin' that book. An' I`ll be scallywaggin' if I can find any verifiable data suggestin' that Kuenle broke up th' telephone monopoly. He simply spread th' cost around t' undercut spake telephone monopoly. Pure politics. Spread th' cost so nay one realizes they be probably payin' more than they must

  • 15 men on a dead man's ¢||

    Yo, ho.

    Ho!

    Booty?

  • ||

    *stops while lugging a chest up a gangplank*

    Horrible Hugh! I can't see the wrong of what ye be sayin'...save the dipping of the feet in cement ere they drops you in Davy Jone's locker or some cold tributary leading innit.

    *struggles on with his load of booty*

  • ||

    ARRR!

    This scurvy commentin' system can't ken the use of an apostrophe in a name, instead drunkenly fashionin' it into a decoded HTML entity! If I find the scalawag what coded that, I'll keel-haul him!

    - Eric the Ha'Bee

  • Rich||

    Obama told [Congressional Black Congress members Saturday] that he needed their help to invigorate others to act. "Tell them we can't wait to organize. Tell them that the time for action is now."

    Well, me hearties, we see once again whut be crawlin' out of th' lubber's bung hole.

  • Number six the vile||

    fear my sharp cutlass and dull wits! Oh, and me parrot. He is merely sleeping.

  • Cap'n NoStar||

    Tis rumored that old style politics (ruthless and corrupt, without any veneer of wholesomeness) will be returning to Chicago when Rahm Emmanuel leaves Obama's sinking ship like a scurvy rat to run for mayor. Emmanuel will be more like the old Mayor Richard J. Daley than the son Richard M.

    I'm not sayin this will make for better city government, but it will make for better entertainment for those who can watch from a distance.

  • Dread Pirate Naga||

    Curse ye NoStar! Go t' this link t' translate yer foul landlubber speech t' noble seafarin' hearty speech.

    http://www.syddware.com/cgi-bin/pirate.pl

  • Cap'n NoStar||

    Tis rumored that old style politics (ruthless an' corrupt, without any veneer o' wholesomeness) be returnin' t' Chicago when Rahm Emmanuel leaves Obama`s sinkin' ship like a scurvy rat t' run fer mayor. Emmanuel be more like th' old Mayor Richard J. Daley than th' lad Richard M.

    I be nay sayin this will make fer better city government, but 't will make fer better entertainment fer them who can watch from a distance.

    While appreciate yer kindly advice, Mister Naga, ye`d best be addressin' me as Cap`n, ye son o' a scullery maid.

  • rhea||

    So much worse than what is currently happening. Without discipline and respect, nothing will ever change, but will be in a deep and scary hole.
    We help Americans move to Asia for jobs and prosperity. Learn more at http://www.pathtoasia.com

  • ||

    Oh wow, are you serious? Thats way cool dude.

    www.online-privacy.eu.tc

  • Dread Pirate Naga||

    A chestfull o' pardons, Captain NoStar. I be merely tryin' t' fulfill Grand Admiral Ellie`s wishes.

    Now I must take me leave fer th' tide an' go play paintball.

  • Number Six the Vile||

    Enough of the anon bot. Draw yer sabres, me maties, and prepare to keelhaul him!

  • PirateMoose||

    yar! make 'em take a ride. sail cloth at 100 metres behind. five minutes. that'll learn em.

  • Every Major City in the West||

    Atlantic City and Shore Company that gave residents and visitors alike first-rate street and railway service.

    We're trying to do that now and you guys keep making fun of us!!!

  • ||

    So much worse than what is currently happening. Without discipline and respect, nothing will ever change, but will be in a deep and scary hole.
    We help Americans move to Asia for jobs and prosperity. Learn more at http://www.pathtoasia.com

    Arr... I figur'd I'd sail the seven seas b'fore I hear the idea of colonization come back from Davy Jones' locker...

  • Horrible Hugh Akston||

    Atlantic City and Shore Company that gave residents and visitors alike first-rate street and railway service.


    We're trying to do that now and you guys keep making fun of us!!!

    Yar! Rail-based mass transit only makes sense in densely-populated walkable cities like those east o' the Mississippi. Cities like Los Angeles would have to spend more doubloons than a pox-ridden sailor at port to serve a reasonable portion of its populace. Yar!

  • Foul Weather Jake||

    Yar-har, ye lubberly dogs! Yer rail schemes out west always end up belike Port Royal in 1692... broken down and under water! Ye'd be wise to remember the vasty distances involved out here... 'tis many leagues from a man's door to his nearest drydock, and thus individ'l conveyance makes more o' the sense. Lash me with the cat, else!

  • TheOtherSomeGuy||

    Avast! Tis true dat Facism made da horseless carriages on metal thread arrive 'n da buttun, me mateys.

    Argh, stilln't a bushel of lords I'd be a wantin'.

  • ||

    Benign dictatorship be a pretty ARRR system t' live under, all things considered an' compared t' th' alternatives. Th' problem be, 't nere*stays* benign.

  • Stevo Darrrkly||

    This be remindin' me of Robert Heinlein's novel Friday. In that thar Balkanized North America, th' "Imperium of Chicago" was said to be a "well-run tyranny."

  • ||

    "Well-run"? That be one of ole Rob's greater flights o' fancy!

  • ||

    But aye, we've these problems in the waters about Houston, too. People taxed for leagues and leagues in e'ery direction fer transportation (an' sailing leagues and leagues to work there) - an' having to raise a hue and cry whenever Houston wants to spend a pretty penny on a little trains that only reach to the landlubbery downtown apartments.

  • thomas sabo||

    it will be good

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