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Brit's take on U.S. capitalism misses the mark

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Thursday, April 10, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

British-born author Simon Winchester is an America booster with an angle.

A freshly naturalized U.S. citizen, he can't get over how a country this big got pulled into one nation.

He credits our bumper crop of never-stay-down inventors and entrepreneurs.

It's an oft-told tale but always worth reminders.

Winchester tackles it in an enthusiastic new book, “The Men Who United the States” ($29.99, Harper­Collins, 463 pages). Unfortunately, you have to give it a demerit for political correctness.

American unity starts with the Constitution, many would say. Winchester starts it with an adventure: the irresistible Lewis and Clark expendition of 1803. President Thomas Jefferson sent the daring duo out to explore his vast Louisiana Purchase (just $15 million, still amazing!) across the plains and over the Rockies to the Pacific, if they could find it.

In time came canal-building, steamboats, the telegraph, railroads, telephone, Edison's light bulb and the alternating current of Tesla and Westinghouse, cars, radio, interstate highways, television and Internet. Lots of heroes along the way. And not all made fortunes.

Winchester singles out unsung engineer Theodore Judah for demonstrating that a transcontinental railroad could cross all the barriers. But he scants the organizers and moneymen who actually built the thing with immigrant labor.

Also uncelebrated here are the oil, steel, coal and glass industries, the sewing machines and farm equipment that industrialized and fed the people. And brought millions to these shores.

It was an achievement to create an unum out of America's pluribus, but gritty industry and grubby finance deserve to take bows too.

Winchester cites as a flaw in free enterprise the failure by early utilities to extend electric lines out into the countryside long after cities were ablaze with light. The “pitiless arithmetic of capitalism,” he says, left millions of farm families dark.

But the only pitiless thing about it is that investor-owned companies don't freely opt to lose money. Nobody would build windmills today without taxpayer subsidies.

So of course We the People eventually had to power up the boondocks. The Rural Electrification Administration of the 1930s New Deal was a “governmental body that lit up those parts of America that capitalism forgot,” as Winchester sourly puts it.

One of his heroes turns out to be midwestern radio broadcaster William Siemering, the “principal founding architect of what would become National Public Radio, NPR.” It seems to mystify the author that Americans don't view radio “not merely as a machine for printing money but as a nation-unifying force for the public good.” That's how Canada, Australia and Britain see it, he says.

Yeah, but also Russia, Iran and Venezuela. No thanks for such unity. America's strength is otherwise, if only it can be kept.

Jack Markowitz is a Thursday columnist of Trib Total Media. Email



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