How powerful people make decisions

Robert Caro is the famed biographer of legendary New York planner Robert Moses and is currently working his way through a multi-volume epic biography of Lyndon Johnson. What connects the two is that both Moses and Johnson were skillful accumulators and wielders of power and this topic fascinates Caro.

In a feature article on Caro, he mused on how people with power make decisions that have little to do with the public good. His first lesson was when he observed with amazement how Moses got the New York State Assembly to easily pass an authorization to build a bridge in a location that made no sense.

“I got in the car and drove home to Long Island, and I kept thinking to myself: ‘Everything you’ve been doing is baloney. You’ve been writing under the belief that power in a democracy comes from the ballot box. But here’s a guy who has never been elected to anything, who has enough power to turn the entire state around, and you don’t have the slightest idea how he got it.'”

The lesson was repeated in 1965, when Caro had a Nieman fellowship at Harvard and took a class in land use and urban planning. “They were talking one day about highways and where they got built,” he recalled, “and here were these mathematical formulas about traffic density and population density and so on, and all of a sudden I said to myself: ‘This is completely wrong. This isn’t why highways get built. Highways get built because Robert Moses wants them built there. If you don’t find out and explain to people where Robert Moses gets his power, then everything else you do is going to be dishonest.’ “

It reminded me of this story of the three mile-long Tappan Zee toll bridge that lies on the highway from New York state to Connecticut. Puzzlingly, it is built at one of the widest spots in the Hudson river. By shifting the bridge a few miles south, the river would have been much narrower and the bridge would have been enormously cheaper to build and maintain. So why was that not done? Because then the toll revenues would have, by law, gone to the Port Authority of New York, whereas governor Thomas E. Dewey wanted the state to get the money. So he decided that the bridge should be built just barely north of the Port Authority’s jurisdiction.

Now the bridge is old and requires repairs that will cost billions of dollars, largely because of its enormous length.


  1. slc1 says

    Had the Tappen Zee Bridge been built further south, I87 would have serviced fewer people in Westchester and Rockland Counties. In addition, the western terminal of the bridge and a short section of I87 would have been in New Jersey, which would have required sharing tolls with that state.

    Incidentally, I note from the Mapquest and Google maps that there has been another name change of the highway. While I was a graduate student in Upstate NY, the highway was renamed the Thomas E. Dewey Thruway. Apparently it has now regained its original name of the New York State Thruway.

  2. says

    Fascinating. I remember when we were hashing out the building of new stadiums here in Cincinnati for the Reds and Bengals. We had to put the financing to a vote and that was contentious enough. The eventual locations were decided by backroom deals and county shenanigans. The prime Riverfront spot went to the Bengals, partly because they had the real threat of moving the team (we’ll leave the real economic benefits generated by a pro sports team to the side for a moment…in general terms it would have sucked to lose the Bengals.) Reds majority owner and part time Hitler fan Marge Schott, in league with Great American Insurance boss and richest guy in town Carl Lindner (who would take over when Marge finally succumbed to being a really old mean smoker) wanted a Riverfront location too, especially since Big Daddy L owned a huge amount of property south of 4th street. A whole lot of us who voted for the funding wanted the new ballpark built at Broadway Commons, an underused space in between several developing neighborhoods. A place that you could walk to like Wrigley or Fenway. Instead the powers that be wedged Great American Ballpark into a space on the river that makes walking to the park from downtown involve crossing 8 lanes of traffic. And they wonder why we get so little walk up attendance.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    How powerful people make decisions: they do what more powerful people want.

  4. Kimpatsu says

    This problem isn’t limited to the USA, Mano. In Japan, the first ever bullet train route was Tokyo to Osaka, and the tracks run north to rural Gifu Prefecture, where the station was originally in the middle of a rice paddy, rather than south to the sea resorts of Mie. Why? Because the transport minister who approved the routes came from Gifu, and building the routes this way enabled him to get home from the Tokyo Diet quicker on a Friday night…

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