February 27, 2021

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Disasters are not partisan

4 min read

There is probably no class of events to which the famous Wittgensteinian prescription should more readily be applied than natural disasters. The millions of people in Texas who are suffering without heat and electricity as a result of the worst winter storm in the state’s recent history do not need the rest of us to interpret their experience for them. Nor does the brute fact of infrastructure not designed to handle conditions more familiar to the Northeast and Upper Midwest require a partisan explanation, whatever malfeasance certain officials might be guilty of.

Nevertheless these are the only terms upon which most of us are willing to discuss the issue. Here I do not exempt myself. “Must be a Democrat fire.” This is always my response when I read another news story about power outages in California that are presented as literally anything except the foreseeable consequences of blue-state misrule by state and municipal authorities who can think of no better solution to energy shortages and the threat of wildfire than to shut off electricity for millions of customers. Anywhere else this would be treated as a risible policy failure, much like the sadistic decision of utility companies in the Lone Star State to deny service temporarily until their requests for surge prices had been approved by regulators.

None of this is especially helpful. These stories are the result of freakish accidents or else of deep-seated structural problems that we conveniently ignore most of the time — or both. No one was “responsible” for Hurricane Sandy, and the suffering it brought to so many was sadly inevitable. No amount of planning or preparation could have prevented this storm from causing nearly $70 billion worth of damage and killing some 230 people in eight countries across the Americas. The same is true to a certain extent of Hurricane Katrina and of the present situation in Texas, though in both cases there is obviously a great deal of malfeasance on the part of both state authorities, who in the latter case have all but admitted that they would rather subject residents to lengthy power outages than participate in what they regard with atavistic loathing as a totalitarian plot against Lone Star sovereignty. (By this I mean being plugged into a wider interstate power grid.)

Still, even in the case of ecological catastrophes whose causes are entirely human, partisan explanations are rarely forthcoming. The best example of this is the ongoing water crisis in the city of my birth, Flint, Michigan. Here it is almost impossible to arrive at anything like a fair apportionment of blame. Rick Snyder, the state’s former governor, shares responsibility with everyone from lazy federal environmental regulators to career state water officials to municipal authorities in Flint and Detroit all abnegated their responsibilities to the citizens of this already distressed post-industrial city.

All of which is to say that when we read about one of these situations, our first impulse should not be to demand that presidents and senators put on emergency worker helmets and hand out water bottles. (For the first and almost certainly the last time on Thursday, I found myself sympathetic to Ted Cruz, whose absence from his home state seems to have been regretted almost exclusively by those who in normal times would rather see him anywhere else.) Instead we should attempt to discover the relevant facts, such as whether the failure of wind turbines played any meaningful part in Texas’ power outages. (As far as I can tell, it did not.) Having done so, we should consider whether our facile prescriptions — give Texas the same snow-proof infrastructure as rural Maine — are realistic, and if for some reason they are, whether we are really in a position to issue sweeping ex-post-facto denunciations of those who failed to make them months, years, or even decades ago.

Most important still, we should consider whether official failures, if there are any, are really the sort of things about which we can cheaply moralize, as opposed to the sadly inevitable result of sclerotic institutions. Texas every bit as much as California makes it clear that electricity should not only be a state-run utility of which citizens are not deprived in the interest of profits, but a nationalized industry. No state should be solely in charge of its infrastructure any more than it should be ultimately responsible for the well-being of its own residents.

Democrat fires do not exist. Neither do GOP blizzards.

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