On a bookshelf behind my desk I've stacked up a few older issues of PUBLIC UTILITIES FORTNIGHTLY. Some of them go back more than a half-century. Every so often I pull down a copy to see if I can learn anything from history.
Yes, the advertisements appear quaint (Royal typewriters; IBM punch-card machines; Ditto-brand duplicators). But some of the ideas still have legs, with lively quotations from the likes of Louis Brandeis, Harold Ickes, Walter Lippmann, and Fiorello La Guardia.
In the issue of June 4, 1936, my eye settled on a two-page report from the International City Managers' Association, describing municipal ownership and operation of all public utilities during the year 1935, among some 930 American cities having a population of 10,000 or more.
The report lists 10 different categories of public utility, ranging from waterworks to airports to abattoirs. Abattoirs? In 1935 only one large city (Philadelphia) reported municipal ownership of a gas distribution utility. Five major cities operated electric utilities (Detroit, to a limited extent, plus Cleveland, Los Angeles, Columbus, and Seattle). But fully three dozen cities reported municipal ownership and operation of a regulated abattoir.
Where did they go?
With the recent flood of utility mergers, involving both electric and gas operations, everyone wants to know whether bigger is really better. Is there a future for vertical integration? Utility economists can be seen turning away from pricing efficiency to reexamine theories of industrial organization. How, exactly, should one organize a business that might perform no other function than own and operate a transmission network?