ONTD Political

A Failed Experiment

6:25 pm - 11/23/2012
In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.

In part, that’s a legacy of Hurricane Sandy. Such a system can cost well over $10,000, but many families are fed up with losing power again and again.

(A month ago, I would have written more snarkily about residential generators. But then we lost power for 12 days after Sandy — and that was our third extended power outage in four years. Now I’m feeling less snarky than jealous!)

More broadly, the lust for generators is a reflection of our antiquated electrical grid and failure to address climate change. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our grid, prone to bottlenecks and blackouts, a grade of D+ in 2009.

So Generac, a Wisconsin company that dominates the generator market, says it is running three shifts to meet surging demand. About 3 percent of stand-alone homes worth more than $100,000 in the country now have standby generators installed.

“Demand for generators has been overwhelming, and we are increasing our production levels,” Art Aiello, a spokesman for Generac, told me.

That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.

It’s manifestly silly (and highly polluting) for every fine home to have a generator. It would make more sense to invest those resources in the electrical grid so that it wouldn’t fail in the first place.

But our political system is dysfunctional: in addressing income inequality, in confronting climate change and in maintaining national infrastructure.

The National Climatic Data Center has just reported that October was the 332nd month in a row of above-average global temperatures. As the environmental Web site Grist reported, that means that nobody younger than 27 has lived for a single month with colder-than-average global temperatures, yet climate change wasn’t even much of an issue in the 2012 campaign. Likewise, the World Economic Forum ranks American infrastructure 25th in the world, down from 8th in 2003-4, yet infrastructure is barely mentioned by politicians.

So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.

Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!

Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.

Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!

Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!

Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!

I’m used to seeing this mind-set in developing countries like Chad or Pakistan, where the feudal rich make do behind high walls topped with shards of glass; increasingly, I see it in our country. The disregard for public goods was epitomized by Mitt Romney’s call to end financing of public broadcasting.

A wealthy friend of mine notes that we all pay for poverty in the end. The upfront way is to finance early childhood education for at-risk kids. The back-end way is to pay for prisons and private security guards. In cities with high economic inequality, such as New York and Los Angeles, more than 1 percent of all employees work as private security guards, according to census data.

This question of public goods hovers in the backdrop as we confront the “fiscal cliff” and seek to reach a deal based on a mix of higher revenues and reduced benefits. It’s true that we have a problem with rising entitlement spending, especially in health care. But I also wonder if we’ve reached the end of a failed half-century experiment in ever-lower tax rates for the wealthy.

Since the 1950s, the top federal income tax rate has fallen from 90 percent or more to 35 percent. Capital gains tax rates have been cut by more than half since the late 1970s. Financial tycoons now often pay a lower tax rate than their secretaries.

All this has coincided with the decline of some public services and the emergence of staggering levels of inequality (granted, other factors are also at work) such that the top 1 percent of Americans now have greater collective net worth than the entire bottom 90 percent.

Not even the hum of the most powerful private generator can disguise the failure of that long experiment.

A version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 22, 2012, on page A35 of the New York edition with the headline: A Failed Experiment.

chaya 24th-Nov-2012 02:11 am (UTC)
I think you forgot a /b in the html.
aviv 24th-Nov-2012 02:15 am (UTC)
what? where? :/
chaya 24th-Nov-2012 02:22 am (UTC)
The last half of your post is bolded. Maybe you meant to? idk
aviv 24th-Nov-2012 02:45 am (UTC)
LOL, you're right, I'll fix it ;)

hinoema 24th-Nov-2012 02:35 am (UTC)
For this and many other reasons, I'm a huge fan of what I guess you could call the reverse grid; be attached, but try to be a contributor more than a user via wind power, solar or similar. I think a backup energy plan for any home in an outage prone area is a great thing.

But yeah, the whole 'pander to the rich corporations and treat taxes like an unnecessary evil and you won't have an infrastructure' idea is nothing new.

Edited at 2012-11-24 02:37 am (UTC)
ericadawn16 24th-Nov-2012 03:08 am (UTC)
Ever think we're already becoming the Eloi and the Morlocks?
othellia 24th-Nov-2012 06:51 am (UTC)
Not really, since rich people are still way too attached to their fake sun tans.
moonbladem 24th-Nov-2012 03:15 am (UTC)
While I was reading this article, three words popped into my mind... "Republicans" and "Grover Norquist". And yet, they still insist on giving the wealthiest Americans and corporations tax cuts. I still find it extremely ridiculous that not only do corporations not pay taxes, but the government in fact owes them money in a lot of cases. It's clearly insane, but they want to continue down this path, and then bitch and moan when the deficit grows. Helllloooo... 2+2=4?
layweed 24th-Nov-2012 03:56 am (UTC)
When I was reading your comment, two words popped into my mind "poopy head". aka Grover Norquist!
moonbladem 24th-Nov-2012 05:03 am (UTC)
I'd squeeze his head but I'm afraid of what might come out.
otana 24th-Nov-2012 09:32 am (UTC)
I think Junji Ito wrote a story along those lines ...
romp 24th-Nov-2012 04:02 am (UTC)
I hope this is widely read. The alarms have been sounding about the aging infrastructure for a few decades now. But I guess the wealthy will just create their own.
layweed 24th-Nov-2012 04:06 am (UTC)
I know, right? This is why I feel like developing countries will surpass us (if they develop "right"). It doesn't seem like people are really willing to invest in upgrading infrastructure here because TAXES!!!!!! unless of course, something happens like a bridge collapses or some other disaster occurs..and then everyone starts asking srs questions like why we don't invest more or have stricter regulations and checking and everything...
romp 24th-Nov-2012 04:12 am (UTC)
Hurricane Katrina! Engineers had been warning about the levees for many years.

I knew things were bad when my nephew told me he *had* to vote to close the local zoo because it didn't make a profit. The idea of the public good was alien to him--he had no other values to apply to the situation.
I didn't appreciate this much until I moved to Canada where my library job wasn't in danger every couple years as it had been in the US. A few years later, I heard Joel Bakan of The Corporation talk and he agreed that the US is further along than Canada is losing the concept. I still have hope of our turning around our values but it needs to happen soon.

Edited at 2012-11-24 04:14 am (UTC)
luminescnece 24th-Nov-2012 05:05 pm (UTC)
This is ridiculous and completely the Republican dream world. Everyone having a problem with power outages? Everyone gets their own generator system! :D

But this is ridiculous. For a fraction of the cost for even a percentage of people on the coast to get their own generator systems, they could pool their money, create jubs and put the electrical system underground and upgrade it at the same god damned time.

But nooooooo. That would be socialism.
maladaptive 25th-Nov-2012 01:44 am (UTC)
We got a generator after going two weeks without power (not just because being without power sucks, a house with lights is also less likely to be burglarized). We would be all for taxes to increase the grid.

No one ever campaigns on that. Possibly because it wouldn't win, or they think it wouldn't, I dunno. But "we need to improve our electrical grid and put wires underground and get more solar" would probably go over well with a lot of people around here on both sides of the aisle if politicians said it.
elialshadowpine 25th-Nov-2012 01:58 am (UTC)
I think it would in a lot of areas. I know in summer I heard a LOT of people talking about that who got affected by the derecho. Here in WA we had people talk about it after the snowstorm in January that took out multiple counties. I'm sure areas affected by Sandy would also be all for it... but you're right, nobody ever seems to campaign on that. -_-
elialshadowpine 25th-Nov-2012 01:57 am (UTC)
It's a problem in my area too, only in winter. Everything is above-ground. Earlier this year we got a snowstorm, which is really unusual. The snow was bad enough, but it was immediately followed by a nasty windstorm, which took everything out across several counties. Mine was without power in sub-freezing conditions for over a week.

We SERIOUSLY after that thought about buying a generator but the cost is just, ngggh. I want to say that it wouldn't have "earned itself out" until we had multiple storms that we woulda had to go to a motel for, and that generally doesn't happen in this area all that often; the last time we had a BAD storm was late 2008.

I'm really freaking hoping I don't end up totally regretting that decision this winter, as we discovered that our RA (both my partner and I have it) is incredibly disabling once we get down to that level of cold. As in, if we get another storm that is expected to be cleared quickly but ends up getting worse, we would probably end up having to beg transport from my parents because neither my partner nor I would be physically able to drive.
This page was loaded Apr 20th 2018, 2:56 am GMT.