The power that wasn’t there

Aug 20, 2003 at 12:00 am

We’re a superpower with a Third World [electricity] grid. —Bill Richardson, former U.S. energy secretary, Aug. 15, 2003


Here’s a snapshot of the state of early 21st century technology: We can aim a missile at a specific building thousands of miles away and actually hit it. We can send complex space probes to planets millions of miles away and, most of the time, they work.

However, three days after 40 million or 50 million people lost their electricity last week, the authorities had no real idea what actually happened, or why, and neither did the experts. They were pretty sure it started in Ohio ... unless it started in Niagara Falls, or maybe New York. For at least a day, ABC News proclaimed it started in Michigan.

To my amazement, the best statement about the crisis came from one George W. Bush. "I view it as a wake-up call," the president said Friday. "You know, I’ve been concerned that our infrastructure — the electricity grid — is old and antiquated. And I think this is an indication of the fact that we need to modernize [it]."

Unfortunately, he was a bit short on specifics. But he was exactly right. We have been letting the foundations to our national house crumble for years, and not just the power grid. When Detroiters flush their toilets, some of the flow goes through pipes that date back to the Civil War. Take a little cruise on I-94, or on many other freeways or surface streets, if you want to see how the highway infrastructure is faring.

Nearly every year we read stories about major railroad derailments, often due to the condition of the tracks or the roadbed or the rolling stock, all of which are more or less neglected. As I write these words, Detroit-area millionaires and paupers alike are boiling their drinking water because a one-day power outage apparently has left it unsafe.

How did the richest nation in history come to this?

Simple. By forgetting that civilization costs money. Even the most fiercely individualistic modern man must admit that society cannot exist without a healthy public sector. We have been brainwashed for years by politicians who have drummed the notion that "taxes are bad" into our heads. Conservatives are convinced that nearly every tax dollar goes to a fat, greedy, promiscuous welfare mother. Progressives think their taxes go to buy $600 toilet lids for airplanes built to bomb innocent women and children.

The fact is that you do get what you pay for — and there really ain’t no such thing as a free lunch — unless we steal from our future. This metropolis is filled with people who are constantly spending thousands of dollars to fix up their houses. Is it really impossible to think they’d refuse to spend to make sure their power worked and their water was safe and their roads were better?

President Bush ought to really lead on this one; he ought to appoint an infrastructure task force that looks at all the major underpinnings of our civilization and comes up with a plan to update them. Then we need bipartisan unity in which both political parties agree, as far as human nature allows, to stop playing games and agree on a major push to save our infrastructure. Otherwise, Osama bin Laden won’t have to resort to acts of terror; sooner or later, our crumbling infrastructure will do the job for the enemies of civilization.

That was abundantly clear from this little episode. Detroiters behaved admirably well during the power failure, except for a tiny bit of looting and a few scuffles over gas and bottled water. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Gov. Jennifer Granholm behaved admirably.

Everybody is now applauding themselves. But this was a crisis that came at the start of a weekend and lasted barely more than one day! Does anyone really think this will be the last — or the worst and longest — power outage we are likely to see?

What would it have been like if it had lasted for a week? How would people who were out of food and water and gasoline behave then? What if someone started spreading wild rumors among a population whose battery-operated radios were mainly out of juice?

Can’t happen here? Think about it. And as they told you in civics class, you just might want to write your congressperson.


Howard Dean update: This column has taken some heat from Dean supporters for suggesting he could stand a little scrutiny — which is not the same as bashing Dean. However, he is the only Democrat who is exciting people — and I now wouldn’t be surprised if he wins the nomination. Incidentally, if you are convinced Dean is a big government liberal, here’s what he said about the power outage: "The president always sees bigger as being better ... What we really need to do is let local people take care of things. What we need is good, strong regional grids. We do not need huge mega-grids."


Dancing with IRV: If you are reading this on Wednesday, you might want to drop by the "Green House" at Nine Mile and Woodward at 7:30 tonight and see a film and discuss Instant Runoff Voting, the best idea for fixing democracy I’ve heard in a long time. Tired of deciding whether to vote your heart or your head? IRV lets you do both; you get to cast a first and second place vote, and if nobody gets a majority, the second place votes are divvied up. The Ferndale City Council has unanimously endorsed it. This is a crucial time to consider IRV, since the state is in the process of buying new voting equipment. Naturally, the major-party hacks stand to lose a fair amount of control, and so will do everything they can to keep such an option from the people.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]