The Land of the Dumb

“The US is surely the only rich economy in the world where most electricity cables are above ground, rather than under it”. This remark, from a Dutch-born (non-Jewish) friend over lunch the other day, was made apropos the state of the power infrastructure in the US generally and in the North-East in particular. Of course, the immediate context was the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the havoc it wreaked – but that was not the focus of his comment.

We were in Washington DC, which was not directly hit by Sandy, and he was relating to the fact that every year, in the normal run of events, there are frequent power outages in parts of DC, because storms – whether in winter or summer – cause trees to fall on power lines, knocking out neighborhoods and sometimes larger areas. Another friend noted that in the upscale Washington suburb where he lives, it is now normal practice for house buyers to spend an extra ten or fifteen thousand dollars on a small generator, for use when the inevitable power outages occur.

These were calm, matter-of-fact remarks made in the quiet of pleasant Washington fall weather. In New York and New Jersey, the tone and content of conversations on this subject, even several weeks after Sandy, are anything but calm and pleasant. The nearer you get to the coastline, the greater the outrage – and the more justified it is. The issue is not whether more could have been done in advance of what, by any reckoning, was an extreme event. Rather, what is raising the hackles of even the bland and blathering American mainstream news channels is the fact that two and even three weeks after Sandy, large numbers of homes – indeed, entire neighborhoods – remained without power and heat, whilst rationing of fuel (petrol and other) faded very gradually.

Israelis, whether visiting or resident in the Tristate area, were simply incredulous that American homeowners, residents of the stricken areas, were prepared to passively accept this state of affairs, even whilst complaining bitterly among themselves. On the one hand, the grass-roots response of people from all communities across the Sandy-blasted states was massive and deeply moving. Organizations of every sort, including Jewish ones running the gamut from Federations to Chassidic, pitched in and even co-operated, with no attempt to fight turf wars or adopt exclusive attitudes. People from all classes, all ethnic groups and all religions spontaneously gave time, money, food, clothing – whatever they could do to help their unfortunate neighbors. On the other hand, there was no attempt to launch mass protests, via demonstrations or other means, against the electric and other utilities, as well as other critical services that were performing so poorly even long after the storm had passed.

This almost-fatalistic passivity, more becoming Buddhists than aggressive, neurotic, loud-mouthed New Yorkers, seems to reflect deep-seated expectations – or rather the lack thereof. The readiness to accept the explanations and excuses of the electricity companies at face value stemmed, apparently, from the understanding that there was no chance of a better outcome – not this time, nor even next time. Interestingly, several people I spoke to offered, quite spontaneously, the insight that the privatization of the electricity sector decades ago had resulted in prolonged lack of investment, stemming from short-sighted pursuit of short-term profitability. The big losers from this structure are the companies’ customers, not their bosses or employees.

But in the wider scheme of things, Sandy merely exposed the extent of the rot, in the Big Apple itself and across the region. On a personal note, I was shocked to find that flying from New York to Atlanta felt like moving from a sclerotic country to a dynamic one. But, as the Washington anecdote highlights, even America’s richest suburbs are trapped in the same overall malaise – a deep-seated unwillingness to invest in infrastructure. After his election victory in 2008 and as part of his planned stimulus program, President Obama promised to address the country’s creaking, obsolete or simply non-existent physical infrastructure, but very little has come of this. Saving the auto industry may or may not be a good thing for the economy, but private cars are more the problem than the solution for making America work in the functional sense.

The brutal truth, on this Black Friday more than any other day of the year, is that the US is obsessed with consumption and instant gratification, at the expense of investment and addressing long-term needs. Its people are so brain-washed into this mindless mode of behavior that, even when the power goes out in their homes, they still can’t see the light.

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