Bidding & the Fifties

The years after World War II were dynamic.  Dams and libraries, art and state histories came out of the depression era alphabet projects; these were followed by the fifties’ interstate system.  Bridges, highways, infrastructure projects of broad scope connected the fast paced growth of suburbs. The first homes of many baby boomers were strange and temporary. One of my friends lived in a train depot.  We lived in a housing project that had grown up quickly during the war to house the workers for a nearby ammunition depot.  These remain, a half century later housing my aunt and other retirees in cinder block, connected homes.

Decades later some contractors were found guilty of price fixing.  I was struck by how little I’d known of how my father viewed his life when he explained to my husband (not long before his death) why his time as county engineer was so short – the system of crony awarding of contracts, the problems with kick backs.  He was prompted to talk about this because the father of one of my friends had explained to my husband during our visit there about his paper title – one designed to cover the company from pending law suits.  He had spent his life working for an asphalt contractor, laying roads around the state.  He felt loyalty to the company and the family that owned it.  He saw little wrong with the process:  apparently asphalt contractors decided among themselves who would bid where—cutting up the state into safe areas.   The companies (and my friend’s father) saw that as efficient.  The courts, decades later, saw it as price fixing.


I wonder how much of this was accepted because of the approach during the thirties described by Meg Sullivan.  She discusses Cole and Ohanian’s article Journal of Political Economy; they observe:

“Why the Great Depression lasted so long has always been a great mystery, and because we never really knew the reason, we have always worried whether we would have another 10- to 15-year economic slump,” said Ohanian, vice chair of UCLA’s Department of Economics. “We found that a relapse isn’t likely unless lawmakers gum up a recovery with ill-conceived stimulus policies.”

Underlying these policies they find a president who “believed that excessive competition was responsible for the Depression by reducing prices and wages, and by extension reducing employment and demand for goods and services.”  (via Instapundit.)

Ideas permeate. Perhaps the different responses to bidding in the late forties and early fifties came from differing visions.  All, however, were influenced by Roosevelt and much else in economic and political theory.  Besides, we’d seen the result of working together – a war won.   The open marketplace often seems prodigal of effort and goods, it requires grace under fire – not always easy to achieve.  Many of us have neither the long range view nor optimism that gives faith in open bidding.  Protection is attractive, most of all because it seems comfortable.  Our childhood would have been more comfortable in some ways if my father didn’t have a long range vision – but, frankly, we would have been impoverished in many other ways.  No matter how bad their marriage was – and it was often quite bad – my mother comforted herself and us with her sense that he was honest.  

A depression lengthened, just like bidding for public roads awarded to cronies, damages us all.   

1 thought on “Bidding & the Fifties”

  1. Adam Smith noticed this some time earlier:

    “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices.’ (WN I.x.c.27: p 145)

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