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In the late nineteenth century, public officials throughout the United States began to experiment with new methods of managing their local economies and meeting the infrastructure needs of a newly urban, industrial nation. Stymied by legal and financial barriers, they created a new class of quasi-public agencies called public authorities. Today these entities operate at al In the late nineteenth century, public officials throughout the United States began to experiment with new methods of managing their local economies and meeting the infrastructure needs of a newly urban, industrial nation. Stymied by legal and financial barriers, they created a new class of quasi-public agencies called public authorities. Today these entities operate at all levels of government, and range from tiny operations like the Springfield Parking Authority in Massachusetts, which runs thirteen parking lots and garages, to mammoth enterprises like the Tennessee Valley Authority, with nearly twelve billion dollars in revenues each year. In The Rise of the Public Authority, Gail Radford recounts the history of these inscrutable agencies, examining how and why they were established, the varied forms they have taken, and how these pervasive but elusive mechanisms have molded our economy and politics over the past hundred years. 


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In the late nineteenth century, public officials throughout the United States began to experiment with new methods of managing their local economies and meeting the infrastructure needs of a newly urban, industrial nation. Stymied by legal and financial barriers, they created a new class of quasi-public agencies called public authorities. Today these entities operate at al In the late nineteenth century, public officials throughout the United States began to experiment with new methods of managing their local economies and meeting the infrastructure needs of a newly urban, industrial nation. Stymied by legal and financial barriers, they created a new class of quasi-public agencies called public authorities. Today these entities operate at all levels of government, and range from tiny operations like the Springfield Parking Authority in Massachusetts, which runs thirteen parking lots and garages, to mammoth enterprises like the Tennessee Valley Authority, with nearly twelve billion dollars in revenues each year. In The Rise of the Public Authority, Gail Radford recounts the history of these inscrutable agencies, examining how and why they were established, the varied forms they have taken, and how these pervasive but elusive mechanisms have molded our economy and politics over the past hundred years. 

28 review for The Rise of the Public Authority: Statebuilding and Economic Development in Twentieth-Century America

  1. 4 out of 5

    Frank Stein

    Gail Radford has done a real service with this work, in that she has somehow compiled 60-plus years of the history of public corporations into a readable and interesting whole. I left with some questions about her main argument, but learned even more than I expected. Radford starts at the federal level, with the Emergency Fleet Corporation and the Federal Land Banks, both created in 1916, which which inaugurated the modern age of public corporations. She rightfully points out the varied roles of Gail Radford has done a real service with this work, in that she has somehow compiled 60-plus years of the history of public corporations into a readable and interesting whole. I left with some questions about her main argument, but learned even more than I expected. Radford starts at the federal level, with the Emergency Fleet Corporation and the Federal Land Banks, both created in 1916, which which inaugurated the modern age of public corporations. She rightfully points out the varied roles of individuals, like Treasury Secretary William McAdoo, and Senators Henry Hollis and Robert Bulkley, in pushing these acts. Her point in focusing on these people is that their plans emerged somewhat by happenstance, called forth by the needs of the moment, but surely a deeper intellectual lineage on the government-owned corporations exists, and would have helped explain their sudden success. Radford moves quickly over the explosion of government corporations in WWI, with a similar exigency argument, and argues convincingly that the New Deal public corps were based on WWI experience. Some stories, like about how the Comptroller General John Raymond McCarl, tried to sabotage the New Deal corporations by requiring them to have their expenses audited just like normal agencies (which would have obviated one of their main advantages) help bring out a little more of the debate behind them, as does the story of how Virginia Senator Robert Byrd got Congress to pass the Government Corporations Act of 1945 to finally bring some congressional oversight to these proliferating companies (for one by now longer allowing them to be incorporated at Executive whim in Delaware). Radford, building off her previous Journal of American History article, is best at dealing with the evolution of state and local public authorities. She points to the success of the Ontario Public Power Commission in 1906 as an inspiration, as well as other "Crown Corporations" in Canada. She also points out how the July 1932 act allowing the Federal Reconstruction Finance Corporation (itself a public company) to loan to "self-liquidating" local projects spurred a Renaissance of public authorities and publicly owned corporations to receive these funds. Its a fascinating story about how federal money impacts state administrative structures. The book is succinct enough that much of this narrative is moved over quickly, and one could worry that this is too heavy a topic to put in such a slim book. But the research is extensive and well-down, and the writing is brisk and easy. I recommend this to those fascinated by America's bewildering variety of government structures and companies.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Cailin Hong

    Everyone should read this book! I learned that since state debt is limited by their respective constitutions, most cities have limits on how much debt they can take on at all, and most require voter approval. In the past this made it very difficult to construct infrastructure at all. Hoover's response to the Depression was actually to promote public works by granting low-interest federal loans for the construction of "self-liquidating" public works, but only 2% could be distributed because of lo Everyone should read this book! I learned that since state debt is limited by their respective constitutions, most cities have limits on how much debt they can take on at all, and most require voter approval. In the past this made it very difficult to construct infrastructure at all. Hoover's response to the Depression was actually to promote public works by granting low-interest federal loans for the construction of "self-liquidating" public works, but only 2% could be distributed because of local legal restrictions. FDR made the idea work by commissioning a national legal team to quickly help draft literally hundreds of pieces of state and city legislation to make this possible. The result was the explosion of public authorities, quasi-governmental agencies funded by revenue bonds, which could take on debt without voter approval. Today, there are between 5-18k public authorities holding over at least $1T in debt (as of 2002! our ability to track this is so bad). Once you know to look for them, you will find them everywhere. Public authorities provide public services with limited government oversight which makes them more efficient, but less accountable. And, because they are funded by revenue bonds, they are beholden to ensuring they generate money from their users, rather than pursuing being guided by the public good in a way a traditional government project might be. Sometimes these incentivize the perpetuation of less important services (e.g., parking authorities, the NJ Sports and Entertainment Authority); other times they discourage the integration of services that should be rationalized (e.g., separate sewage and utilities agencies, distinct transit authorities within an increasingly integrated region). The big lessons to me are that 1) most public works are debt-financed, and always have been 2) the "third way" of revenue-conscious public finance has its roots in haphazardly responding to antiquated debt laws. At the intersection of these two ideas: in Georgia and Florida, voters wouldn't approve funds to build schools, so instead each state authorized building authorities that constructed the school then leased it to the school district. Impassioned debates about national principles and federal debt elide the centrality of sub-federal public works and debt in organizing modern life.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Benjamin Stitt

  4. 4 out of 5

    John

  5. 4 out of 5

    Katie

  6. 5 out of 5

    Kadiri Saliu

  7. 4 out of 5

    S. Tom Cebic

  8. 4 out of 5

    Eric Peterson

  9. 4 out of 5

    Zane Curtis-olsen

  10. 4 out of 5

    Alexander

  11. 4 out of 5

    Imron

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ted

  13. 4 out of 5

    Evan Sullivan

  14. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

  15. 5 out of 5

    Eric

  16. 5 out of 5

    Jonathan Hertel

  17. 4 out of 5

    Tabsira Archives

  18. 4 out of 5

    Matthew Hall

  19. 4 out of 5

    Macartney

  20. 4 out of 5

    Kadiri Saliu

  21. 5 out of 5

    Alice Lemon

  22. 5 out of 5

    J I

  23. 5 out of 5

    Raven

  24. 5 out of 5

    Alex Tippett

  25. 5 out of 5

    Jesse

  26. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Haberman

  27. 4 out of 5

    Maryanne Salm

  28. 4 out of 5

    Zachary Wasserman

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