Must-read: Daniel Gross: “The Ties that Bind: Railroad Gauge Standards and Internal Trade in the 19th Century U.S.”

Must-Read: Really neat piece on technology standards and antitrust: On June 1, 1886, U.S. railroads converted the U.S. South to the national gauge… and increased their own profits enormously, but because they effectively colluded on freight rates there were no increases in railroad-sector consumer surplus generated by this advance in efficiency in the short run. The takeaways: standards matter a lot, and for the health of the overall market and for equitable growth market competition and antitrust policy matter even more:

Daniel P. Gross: The Ties that Bind: Railroad Gauge Standards and Internal Trade in the 19th Century U.S.: “Technology standards are pervasive in the modern economy…

…and a target for public and private investments, yet evidence on their economic importance is scarce. I study the conversion of 13,000 miles of railroad track in the U.S. South to standard gauge between May 31 and June 1, 1886 as a large-scale natural experiment in technology-standards adoption that instantly integrated the South into the national transportation network…. I find a large redistribution of traffic from steamships to railroads serving the same route that declines with route distance, with no change in prices and no evidence of effects on aggregate shipments, likely due to collusion by Southern carriers. Counterfactuals… suggest that if the cartel were broken, railroads would have passed through nearly 70 percent of their cost savings from standardization, generating a 20 percent increase in trade on the sampled routes. The results demonstrate the economic value of technology standards and the potential benefits of compatibility in recent international treaties to establish transcontinental railway networks, while highlighting the mediating influence of product market competition on the public gains to standardization.

March 30, 2016


Brad DeLong
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