Saturday, July 9, 2011

Ellis Arnall's Train Wreck

Old-time native Southerners frequently attribute the ruin of the south to air conditioning. Undoubtedly air conditioning had a huge effect on the  influx of population to the southern states, but I think another event - not an invention - is the main reason or at least a major contributing reason.

Ellis Arnall was elected Governor of Georgia at thirty-five years old, winning him the title of "Boy Governor" He was what would have been called a "Progressive" or "Reformer" or some such other title that bespoke his unorthodox views. He pushed through the law making Georgia the first state to allow 18 year-olds the vote and made the operation of the prisons independent of the Governor.

The thing he did that probably had the greatest effect on the whole country was to win a lawsuit against the railroads. Before Arnall's victory against the railroads, the south was maintained as an agricultural colony of the north by means of discriminatory freight rates. If a planter wanted to ship peanut butter to the north, it cost him more than if a northern company shipped the same peanut butter to the south. If the planter wanted to ship unprocessed peanuts to the north, it was cheaper, thereby protecting northern manufacturing - and unions - by means of higher freight rates on finished goods.

If a manufacturer wanted to move to the south to escape union control of his company, it would make him uncompetitive with his northern competition unless he could manufacture his product considerably cheaper in the south.

The railroads claimed that they had higher costs of road-bed maintenance in the south than in the north and other economic reasons for the higher rates from south to north traffic, but Arnall showed that that wasn't true.
Some other southern states refused to join the suit because they feared that it would be unsuccessful and the railroads would retaliate. As the saying goes, "No guts, no glory."

I have not done a study of this (and don't intend to), but I wonder how much of the Rust Belt would still be churning out manufactured goods if Arnall had not broken the freight rate disparity. Soon after Arnall's victory many companies started fleeing the north and union control.

Demographic shifts probably always have many unseen causes - people are still debating what caused the fall of the Roman Empire - , but when companies can move from a higher-cost to a lower-cost area, they will probably do so, all other factors being equal or more favorable.

The next time somebody is complaining about how the south is going to hell in a hand basket, they can lay at least part of the blame on Ellis Arnall.


  1. Why do you think the increase of (higher-paying) manufacturing jobs is bad for the South? Agricultural jobs, specifically non-industrial-farming, low-skill, physical-labor-intensive jobs have always paid much less than manufacturing jobs. In Arnall's time the South suffered vast poverty, malnutrition and lack of education. Things improved with the factory jobs, no?

    1. I don't think manufacturing jobs are necessarily a bad thing, but they changed the atmosphere of the north and the south.

      The north became the rust belt and the south lost its agrarian, small-farmer base.

      I think overall, agrarian people (I am not one, being raised in the city) have a much better grasp of reality through their observation of the cycles of life and the seasons, etc.

      For good or ill, I think Arnall's suit changed the whole country more than most people realize.

  2. I'll grant you that rural people are more in touch with the land and natural life but I grew up in the rural South and the poverty was still grinding in the 1970s. I now live in a city with grinding poverty. Yes, city poverty is worse than rural poverty. In Baltimore there are square miles of substandard housing with no greenery to give any respite. When I was a boy, I could always go to the woods and escape -- whatever. We were poor but not dirt poor so I didn't need to supplement the grocery bill by hunting but I know plenty of men and boys and a few women who did. In the country you can also grow some food - which we and most everyone we knew always did, keep some chickens - which we did and lots of others did as well, and so on. All of this makes the poverty not as oppressive as it is in the cities where the poor - unless they are exceptional - have no option but crime or government dependency.
    I'm getting off the subject but your response made me think.
    In the end, I'm not so sure about manufacturing jobs changing the character of the South. I think if you ask any Southerner what has been responsible for any adverse change, the answers would be the immigration of Northerners into the South (I'll grant you much of that immigration is due to the availability of those manufacturing jobs); the nationalization of the entertainment industry so that everyone watches American Idol but the Grand Ole Opry and Hee Haw are LONG gone; the corporatization of the news media and the disappearance of the local newspapers; the marginalization of the Southern accent among educated Southerners; and I'm sure most Southerners would find a lot of things to blame before they got to industrialization. Probably the most unfortunate result of Southern poverty for generations has been the exodus of her most gifted children to places where they thought they'd find more opportunity. I think some of those manufacturing jobs can lead to some more prosperity where that changes.