On Sunday I was walking through downtown Portland, and noticed that some traffic lights were out. Odd, I thought, given that although it was and had been quite cold, the day was dry and sunny, and all the power in that area had been underground for decades.
The following morning, reading the online version of our once-daily newspaper, I was astonished to read that because of the power outage, City Hall, the Portland Building, and Multnomah County Courthouse would be closed until further notice. Traffic lights would remain out for at least that day, as would light rail ticket machines, and several major office buildings, and part of the Pioneer Place Mall. I didn’t spit my coffee until I got to that last part.
Really? Power can go out for a large chunk of downtown, absent any discernible weather emergency, and then just stay off for days? During the War on Christmas, to boot? As Monday slid into Tuesday, spokesmen from our local power monopoly, Portland General Electric, (former subsidiary of Enron, natch) explained that it was just really hard, complicated, and what have you. That is, we have a power company that doesn’t know how to, well, keep the power on.
Now, we all know that many utilities are plagued by aging infrastructure that can break down, often spectacularly, at the worst possible moments. But here the oldest buried power lines date to the 1970’s, and the traffic signals and fare machines, along with much of the pavement, were all replaced less than five years ago. Everything looks as though it could still be on warranty.
By Wednesday, power had been restored to the buildings, but the traffic lights were still out. Three days later. I suppose we are gradually becoming accustomed to the fact that not only the systems upon which we depend are much more fragile than they once were, but when things break down, no one really knows how to fix them. Why would anyone be such a commie fussbudget as to expect that a large Job Creator like PGE knew how to keep its own equipment running?
Sadly, decades of venerating something called “shareholder value” above all else has made the vast majority of American big businesses as lame and pathetic as PGE just showed itself to be. So dominated by MBA’s at the top and depleted of basic functionality below, these parasites seem almost put out that their whiny customers actually expect something in return when their money is taken. From the bank to the grocery store, from the utility to the health insurer, what we constantly worship as the super-efficient “private sector” is actually as top-heavy and sclerotic as anything in the old Soviet Union.
To call such sloppy, shiftless entitlement to money for nothing “rent seeking” is something of an insult to rent-seekers. Today’s John Galts just take the money and run, because they’re so Exceptional.
Photo by M. R., used under Creative Commons license