Posts tagged ‘William Henry Vanderbilt’

The Public Be Damned

You still hear William Henry Vanderbilt's quote all the time today.  Generally, it is used to comment on situations where public companies dishonor themselves by fraudulently providing poor products and services.  Interestingly, doing a Google search on the term, I also see a lot of usage for it as applied to government as opposed to industry.

Anyway, it is ironic that the origins of the quote are very different than the current usage.  Vanderbilt's New York Central had just canceled an experimental high-speed high-service train from New York to Chicago.  A reporter asked him "Don't you run it (the train) for the public benefit?" and Vanderbilt very reasonably replied:

The public be damned.  I am working for my stockholders. If the public want the
train, why don't they pay for it?

In reality, Mr. Vanderbilt was eliminating a product that had proven unpopular in the marketplace.  His notion of fiduciary responsibility is not only appropriate, but in certain contexts can be argued to be legally required, at least today.  If some reporter today was stupid enough to ask the CEO of a failed dot-com this question (ie, why are you going out of business, why don't you just keep losing money for the public good) would we really criticize the CEO for giving the moron a smartass answer?  Accepting that Mr. Vanderbilt's answer was wrong is to accept that Mr. Vanderbilt should be a slave to public opinion, not as expressed by individuals in their purchasing decisions, but as expressed by an ill-defined elite who seemed to support the service for its aesthetic value.  And by the way, how had a service that didn't even exist a decade earlier, and only existed through the creativity of the NY Central, suddenly become an essential public service and expectation?

By the 20th Century, the high speed Chicago to New York express train  was bread and butter to the NY Central and its arch-rival the Pennsylvania.  In the end, cutting this service turned out to be just a temporary suspension of a product ahead of its time.