The current hurricane season in the southeastern United States and the Caribbean has been horribly telegenic so far. A lot of people are in distress, most recently in Puerto Rico, and despite the well-documented hemorrhaging of social trust in American society over the past few generations, many hearts and much help have gone out to care for them in their hour of need. We are not fated, it seems, to relive the Kitty Genovese syndrome ‘til doomsday cometh.
Not all the news around the storms is so upbeat, however. It was inevitable that some observers would latch on to the Houston catastrophe, in particular, to claim that much of it was man-made. And with good reason that need not even drag those obsessed with climate change into the mix: the standard Texan disdain for zoning and planning that led to a vast and rapid increase in impermeable surface (also known as concrete and asphalt) in what is anyway a geological zone not flush with (you should excuse the language) permeable soil types. A storm as large as Harvey would probably have overwhelmed even a well-zoned and planned-for city, granted, but very few storms are the size of Harvey. It’s safe to say, in any case, that the veritably deliberate failure to plan made a bad situation worse.
If the man-made rap is even partially true, this should come as no big shock to anyone who paid attention to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The flooding of New Orleans was exquisitely man-made: The levies failed because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had been suborned over several years by corrupt politicians, local and national, to do substandard and incoherent (from an engineering standpoint) work that was pretty much guaranteed to fail in an emergency.
Then, with Irma, we beheld the spectacle of EPA Director Scott Pruitt opining that it was “very, very insensitive” to raise questions about climate change when people were suffering the aftereffects of the hurricane. The Republican Mayor of Miami, Tomás Regalado, and others respectfully, or perhaps a bit disrespectfully, disagreed with Pruitt. Given the current political climate (word chosen carefully), that’s about as surprising, and about as appealing, as fresh cow flop in a bovine-populated pasture.
Surprising or not, it wasn’t pretty. But it was also mostly beside the point. After all, few Floridians struggling in the aftermath of the storm cared much about Pruitt’s remark or Regalado’s rejoinder, especially since very large numbers of them lacked electrical power to attend to the conversation: no television, no desktop computers, no way to charge their phones to get internet.
Which brings me to my point, which concerns the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in just about everyone’s living room that, as these things go by definition, hardly anyone can see. Let me make the gorilla visible for you, if I may, in a somewhat roundabout but, I hope, entertaining fashion.
When I greet a class of undergraduates in the confines of a high-prestige university, I often find it useful to deploy a playful but pointed exercise in ego deflation. Whatever the subject I’m supposed to teach, I ask the class members three questions at the first session: Why are (pretty much) all manhole covers round? When a whip “cracks,” what actually makes the sound? And why do some birds in temperate climate zones migrate south for the winter while others do not?
From time to time some wiseass in the class actually knows the answer to one or more of these questions, but that’s rare. Some of the guesses students make range from hilarious to embarrassing. The answers are actually pretty obvious once pointed out, to wit:
- Manhole covers are round because circles are a perfect shape, and so cannot be angled to fall into the hole and perhaps injure someone working below. Any other shape can be angled to fall through the hole.
- A whip “cracks” not because leather has smacked against leather, but because the tip of the whip actually breaks the sound barrier.
- Birds who migrate away from freezing weather have a live-food, mostly insect, diet; birds that stay eat seeds, nuts, berries, and the like. It has nothing to do with how thick their feathers are or how vivid their travel imaginations may be.
I’ve decided now to add a fourth question to my reservoir of undergraduate ego-deflation tools: Why is it that when serious storms strike most west European countries we rarely hear anything about major power outages in their wake, but when serious storms strike the United States we always do? The answer that accounts for the difference is the 800-pound gorilla.
Can you see the gorilla yet? Well, then, take a look at the photograph here, snapped in Puerto Rico after Maria had passed through, that appeared on the front page of the September 22 New York Times.
What do you see? You see, I assume, a large number of downed telephone poles and power lines. Look at any photograph of any major storm aftermath in the United States, whether it be a summer hurricane or a winter blizzard, and you will see pretty much the same thing to one degree or another.
As everyone realizes, downed power lines are dangerous. Massive power outages can also be life threatening, are certainly very expensive to remediate, and invariably have dour if usually temporary consequences for the economy. Some Pentagon experts will tell you that stringing power lines up on poles also constitutes a national security vulnerability, for it renders the grid naked to EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack. Why do advanced countries in western Europe, for example, not have problems of a similar scale with serious storm aftermaths (and yes, they have their share, even if not of Cat. 5 hurricane magnitude)? Because they generally don’t string their power lines up on ugly poles; they bury them!
There you go: gorilla revealed. See him smile. Hear him laugh at us. Listen to him comment: “What a bunch of idiots!”
Is the gorilla being unfair? Well, ask yourself: In all the coverage you have read about Harvey, Irma, and Maria, have you come upon a single politician or mass-media maven saying so much as a single word about our remarkable, seemingly overweening, desire to hoist electrical transmission lines up on “telephone poles” that, just by the way, most users of telephones in the United States today don’t even need them for? Me neither.
Of course, many neighborhoods in the United States have underground power lines—mostly newer and upscale ones. But it’s still the exception rather than the rule in most places, and there is no serious public-policy momentum in most states to modernize this aspect of the power grid (let alone others). When the current President makes a big deal about infrastructural investments, he does no better than his “shovel-ready” predecessor: For all anyone can tell, both of them are about repairing and adding to the legacy infrastructural forms we have inherited. No one in a position of political authority has a word to say about the kind of smart, integrated infrastructural reform that new technology makes possible.
We have suffered needlessly from storms this season, as we suffer needlessly from storms almost every season. In larger perspective, however, what we really suffer from is a massive failure of imagination and political will.
Now, if you raise this matter of burying power lines to local power utility executives and local politicians, you get a varying line of talk. Some will say that distances in the United States are much greater than in most west European, Scandinavian, and other states (for example Singapore, the UAE) that bury their power lines, so the economic calculations differ.
Burying lines does carry more of an upfront cost than sticking them up on poles. This is therefore to some extent a valid point, but it doesn’t excuse sticking lines up on poles in densely populated areas. We could still have lines up on poles between urban areas and have the lines buried within urban areas. But as a rule, we don’t do that and most urban areas in the United States have no plans to do that. Why?
Well, if you continue the conversation with those “in the business” at local levels, you soon hear a stickier truth: We are sunk in a legacy maintenance investment of cherry-picker trucks and a raft of other physical stock related to telephone pole-power line installation and maintenance. To change to burying lines would require junking much of that investment and digging into our pockets for new equipment and materials, and new training protocols for our workers. We don’t have the money, they tell you. “Float a bond?”, you suggest. Answer: silence, usually.
And to be sure, burying power lines would not solve all problems related to power transmission. For starters, areas particularly prone to repeated storm flooding are not appropriate for buried lines. Even where they are appropriate, buried lines sometimes need maintenance, too, albeit less often. It’s hard for a tree limb to sever a power line if it’s underground. But they don’t usually need maintenance “all at once” because of storms (earthquakes are another story, but major earthquakes are much, much rarer than seasonal storms). Underground lines wear out and break over a much more evenly distributed period, meaning we wouldn’t need to finance the expensive surge capabilities required by storm emergencies. That means that electrical utilities could spend much less on maintenance over the life of system elements; over time that savings would more than compensate for the greater up-front costs of burying power lines, especially if underground systems employ new technologies that make electrical transmission more efficient. Yeah, we can do that too.
Burying lines is more expensive and time-consuming than it would otherwise be because all sorts of other stuff is buried in urban areas—gas lines, sewer lines, cable lines, and more. If the electric company doesn’t reliably know where all these other conduits are, the huge mess they are likely to make is predictable, and so are the fights with other utilities and companies. Well, don’t we have reliable maps of underground installations, and can’t these be aggregated at a clearinghouse of some kind to obviate this problem? You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Go right ahead, and see where that gets you.
But while some see this crowded-conduit situation as a problem, it’s wiser to see it as an opportunity. What it suggests is new “smart” infrastructure that can bundle infrastructural elements in a vastly more efficient way than we do now. Information technology advances applied to infrastructure enable us to use “peak load” thinking to spread out the energy input in infrastructure systems—its most expensive aspect over all—seen as an integrated unit, and not just in the electricity supply. Several other countries that have had the luxury of starting fresh in the absence of major legacy infrastructure inheritances. But that requires integrating different infrastructural elements at least to some extent, all of which have their own histories, business models, relations to government/private sector mixes, institutional cultures, relations to unions, and so on.
The technology is therefore not so much the problem: Impressive infrastructure-related innovation is going on at lab-scale in many American universities—Cal Tech, MIT, Case Western Reserve, Carnegie-Mellon, and plenty of others. We have the engineers and the materials scientists to do this sort of thing, even though it’s impossible to get to best practice at scale until we actually get our hands dirty trying to build some of this stuff. We have also had for some years now ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, one of whose mandates has been precisely innovation in infrastructure. But Congress has never funded ARPA-E properly, and the Trump Administration, so rhetorically gung-ho on infrastructure, has endeavored to kill it altogether in its first budget proposal. Talk about stupid.
We could even develop much more efficient trench-digging technology than we have now, were there a reasonable incentive to develop it. We still have brilliant pneumatic and hydraulic engineers for such a fairly straightforward challenge.
The real problem is that nowhere in government at any level is there a convening platform where all the different elements of the infrastructural enterprise can sit down together to rationally plan, invest, construct, and maintenance an integrated infrastructural system of systems. What we have, in other words is a textbook case of Galston’s Law (named after Bill Galston, on the TAI editorial board). Galston’s Law states: You cannot get new or bold policy outcomes from a bureaucratic set-up designed to do other things.
This is what I mean by a failure of imagination and political will. Precious few of our political leaders understand Galston’s Law, partly because few of them have ever worked in a government bureaucracy. They rarely see any relationship between policy outcomes and government structure; they tend to take the latter as an immutable given. They rarely think of innovating toward greater efficiency for the common weal; they instead incline to think of throwing more good money at bad arrangements. It’s so much easier, and doing so often appeases certain concentrated constituencies whose interests are in stasis rather than change. (Yes, this is a collective action sort of problem, for those readers who understand the concept.)
Of course the aggregate consequence of this kind of stasis-biased thinking is the impossible but nevertheless likely conclusion that we will never innovate in infrastructure, and so will fall ever further behind other countries that can organize their politics in more functional ways. So we look at Puerto Rico after Maria and shake our heads, muttering “oh, what a shame.” And then instead of seeing the mess as an opportunity to rebuild smarter—after emergency relief has been provided, of course—we just put more wires up on poles to guarantee that the next time a major storm hits we’ll all end up repeating, “oh, what a shame.” If this is not a description of abject political dysfunction in action, what is?
In the past, it has usually been the private sector in the United States that has led technical innovation, and government has tagged along afterwards in an effort to disambiguate, regulate, and, of course, tax if it can. There have been exceptions: the canal-building projects especially of the Madison and Monroe Administrations; the Manhattan Project; NASA and DARPA, are some of them. But these are the storied exceptions that illustrate a rule that may not work with future infrastructure reform, because so many of its elements are deeply entangled in public-utility monopoly arrangements, as many need to be. There isn’t much market balm to expect from that context.
So this is a huge undertaking that only government, working the Federal apparatus as it is capable of being worked, can initiate and manage successfully. If an administration were to state as a four- or eight-year goal the burying of all urban power lines in America (and Puerto Rico), it would soon come to conclude that broader innovative reforms of the country’s infrastructural system as a whole are both necessary, possible, and highly desirable.
Such an effort would be an easy political sell, and politicians wouldn’t even have to lie about it—alas, the default posture of all too many of them. Such an effort, after all, would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in private-sector contractor businesses—high-tech jobs and all sorts of other jobs. It would stimulate the economy in all the right ways, through investment rather than through consumption, from building rather than through dissipation. It would be a boon for many universities and for R&D efforts both governmental and corporate, with unpredictable but perhaps not small ancillary benefits for the economy in the longer run. It would bolster STEM education efforts nationwide. And I could go on.
The Trump Administration will never do something like this. The Obama Administration might have but, alas, didn’t. American politics are ecumenically broken. But now listen up Democrats: Anyone who is thinking about how to peel away the outer layers of Trump voters, by figuring out a way to do something positive and practical for people who’ve gotten the shaft of globalization these past few decades, would do well to start with smart infrastructure investment in innovation.
Allow me, please, a final remark to illustrate something of the structure/function mismatch that increasingly bedevils the efficacy of the American state.
You will perhaps recall that during Hurricane Harvey some chemical storage facilities of the (French-owned) Arkema Corporation in Crosby, Texas caught fire—a building and several trailers—sending plumes of toxic gasses and smoke into the air. The reason the chemicals exploded into fire was that their cooling mechanisms failed thanks to power outages. The electrical transmission lines, strung up on poles, blew down; their backup generators ended up under water. Bad scene.
After something like that happens, any normal person in a position of authority would want to figure out how to prevent something like it from happening again. One obvious approach is to site the backup generators up on the roof, or on some scaffolding strong and high enough to be reasonably safe from flooding. Another is to bury the principal transmission lines in watertight conduits. The company might decide to do such things without anyone in government at any level forcing it to, because it makes economic sense: saves on insurance premiums, lost operating time and hence lost revenue, reconstruction costs, and so on. Or it might not.
But again, the technical side isn’t the real problem. When something like a major chemical fire occurs, as it did in Houston during Harvey, what responsibility does government have, even if the company acts wisely in its own interests? Think this is a simple question to answer? Ha!
First, you’ll need to figure out what level of government matters most here—county, state, or Federal? Does regulatory jurisdiction overlap in a case like this? If so, how and to what effect? Want answers? Then get ready to experience a major headache trying to get them.
Second, looking just at the Federal level, which agencies and departments are liable to be engaged? Well, since potentially dangerous chemicals are involved, OSHA will be present to protect workers whether there is an emergency or not. The EPA will have to be involved as well, since disposal of chemicals and chemical by-products are part of its mandate. What about the Department of Transportation? Sure, these chemicals have precursors that have to come from somewhere and the finished products have to be transported somewhere—if any of that process crosses state lines, that’s DOT’s responsibility. What about DHS, since such facilities are clearly potential terrorist targets? Sure. The Department of Energy? Maybe; depends on what chemicals we’re talking about. CDC? Same answer: maybe, depending on the stuff at issue. Commerce? Possibly a small role, if the chemicals in question are mainly being processed for export. Even DOJ could conceivably have a role if criminal neglect can be established as a source of the disaster. FEMA? When there is a problem of this sort, certainly.
With that bureaucratic dramatis personae in mind, ask yourself the obvious next question: Who’s actually in charge when things go wrong? Is there a rationally organized, standing Interagency arrangement of some sort—or any protocol-in-waiting to disentangle jurisdictional overlap—that kicks into action when something like this happens?
Let me offer a hint as to the answer: Sorry, there’s no gorilla.