“Labour and capital are one on Sodor”: on the economics and politics of Thomas the Tank Engine

Thomas and friend.

When my second child arrived, I didn’t have time to do much writing. What I did have time to do, though, is watch an awful lot of Thomas the Tank Engine with my eldest. Often early (very early) in the morning.

It may just be sleep deprivation, or maybe something deeper, but the more I watch Thomas, the more questions are raised in my mind.

There’s been plenty written on the politics of these stories. What I think is missing (sleep deprivation alert) is a consideration of some of the economic, financial and business questions raised.

Before proceeding, I should be clear that the Thomas I am considering is the modern, CGI edition, in particular seasons 13 and 14. This is not the Ringo Starr voiced Thomas of my own youth. Things have moved on in the fictional (but strangely well developed) island of Sodor, although much remains constant.

The place to start is with the railway company itself. For many days I couldn’t fathom its ownership structure. I think it’s pretty clear that it is not a listed entity. The company engages in all manner of pursuits but few of them seem focussed on shareholder value.

If the company is listed, I would argue it suffers from corporate governance problems of the highest order.

There are elements of a stakeholder model at work. Whilst there is little evidence of a works’ council, the interests of the staff do seem to be taken into account at times. Suppliers are clearly valued and there is a certain long termism at work. Profit, in the short term at least, is very much a secondary consideration. Maybe the Rhine flows through Sodor? But this theory is too neat.

It could also be that the firm is state owned. I can’t rule that out but it raises bigger questions as to the nature of the state on Sodor.

It’s perhaps most likely that the company is privately held: privately held but closely entwined with the political forces of Sodor. Sodor is very much a one company kind of town and it isn’t hard to image how the railway firm would yield immense political power.

If it is privately held, then presumably the owner is the Fat Controller himself, Sir Topham Hatt.

As an aside, I am curious as to that “Sir” - was he knighted as part of an aristocratic embrace of the forces of capitalism on Sodor? Is that knighthood a way of tying the modern bourgeois into the remnants of a feudal state?

Perhaps, but this I think this is to look down the wrong end of the telescope. Sir Topham’s mother is ‘The Dowager’. I suspect he was never knighted at all but is in fact a hereditary baronet.

This is not an attempt to head off political change by binding in the new industrialists. Sodor is at an early stage of development, the industrialists themselves come from the aristocracy.

There is no evidence of an active credit market on the island. The capital to build this railway came from the old holders of power and wealth.

The current governance of the island is complex. The industrial – and possibly the real political – power is clearly held by Sir Topham. Whose animation, it is worth noting, resembles Bob Hoskins as Khrustchev in Enemy at the Gates. (Might this be important? Perhaps.)

Then there is the duke. He is ferried from time to time between his main residence and his summer house. Whilst clearly a figure of symbolic importance, it is unclear if he holds any real de facto or de jure power.


The real complication comes in the office of mayor. I am uncertain what powers he holds and equally in the dark on the manner of his appointment.

The only explanation that really works for me is as follows. Sir Topham, or perhaps his ancestors, were once rich but minor members of Sodor’s gentry. They built the railway and have been expanding it ever since. The duke may rule in name but not in deed. The mayor is but a democratic fig leaf that camouflages the real Sodor.

Sir Topham’s industrial and political powers are closely linked. The railway survives by virtue of its monopoly. Any profits are continually reinvested in expanding the track network of what is frankly an already ludicrously over-serviced island.

Real competition would kill the railway. There is of course Bertie the Bus providing one competing service, but some evidence suggests this is but a charade. Whether there is formal collusion or not, Bertie and the railway avoid direct competition.

The situation with the narrow gauge interior line, run by the Thin Controller, is more clear cut. The two controllers regularly meet. If Sodor had a competition authority (not that Sir Topham would ever allow this) this would be an open and shut case.

The odd thing about Sodor and its railway is the continuing use of steam power. Clearly alternatives are available. There are Diesel engines at work, but they are limited to pulling freight and shunting trucks. They are certainly not allowed anywhere near passenger lines. Given the sentience of the engines themselves, this may reflect special privileges for the so-called “steamies” – an extreme form of demarcation that is clearly crying out for structural reform.

The fact that labour and capital are, in the form of anthropomorphised engines, one on Sodor complicates any analysis.

But I think the driver of the use of steam is not to do with a two-tier labour market. Rather it is emblematic of the poor state of technological advancement on the island as a whole. In one episode an electric train is introduced, only for his battery to run out as none of the others understand how he works. Sodor is a place that struggles with modernity.

Clearly the adoption of new technologies is not widespread. One can guess at the productivity performance of Sodor and it looks grim.

The silver lining is that the Island maintains something approximating full employment. The cloud is that living standards appear to have stagnated since the early 1980s.

Economists do not fully understand the long term drivers of productivity growth. But the lesson of Sodor is this: over investing in a technologically backward, sheltered and protected from competition railway is not the road to prosperity.

And yet despite stagnant living standards the people/engines of Sodor appear content. Indeed it is unclear if they get paid at all – instead they seek meaning and joy in a Stakhanovite desire to be “really useful engines”. The great trick of Sir Topham is to employ engines who essentially evoke the image of the New Soviet man in the service of a proto-capitalist, semi-feudal enterprise.

Duncan Weldon is an economist, currently head of research at the Resolution Group.

This article originally appeared on Medium in 2015, and appears here with permission.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.