Whose Hubris? Brandeis, Scientific Management, and the Railroads
This chapter reinterprets Louis Brandeis's role in the crisis of progressive era railroad regulation. While others have implicated Brandeis in the crisis, the essay shows how he identified fatal flaws in Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) ratemaking and proposed a coherent alternative. Brandeis showed how rate-of-return regulation made false promises to measure the objective value of railroad property and gave the railroads perverse incentives to increase costs. Drawing on the work of scientific manager F. Lincoln Hutchins, Brandeis proposed to replace valuation with a benchmarking system by which railroads could compare their performance. Drawing on his work in Massachusetts natural gas, Brandeis proposed to set rates according to a system of ‘sliding scales’, in which railroads received higher dividends when they provided lower rates. In theory, Brandeis's system was superior to rate-of-return regulation because it provided railroads with incentives to improve and information, unavailable from the firm or the market, about how to improve.
Keywords: Louis Brandeis, Henry Carter Adams, Interstate Commerce Commission, railroad regulation, scientific management, cost accounting, benchmarking, marginalist economics, Massachusetts natural gas, public utility
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