In Olden Times, Government Could Still Do Wrong Right


Home of the chocolate-covered frozen banana.

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."