The Republic of T.

Black. Gay. Father. Vegetarian. Buddhist. Liberal.

Our Politics of Powerlessness

In the metro-D.C. area, if it isn’t electricity it’s the water. The wind shifts direction or a simple summer storm is all it takes to knock out one or the other — and, many times, both. But we don’t just have a problem with power. Our biggest challenge is the politics of powerlessness, and the problems it leads us to steadfastly refuse to solve.

Dean Baker, as is often the case, is right.

Sunday afternoon, a storm hit Washington. It knocked out the power not only in my house, approximately 3 miles from the White House, but also in large chunks of the city and suburbs. Fifteen hours later, we still don’t have power.

This should make everyone very angry. There is no excuse for nation’s capital not to have sufficient spare capacity and repair crews to ensure that prolonged blackouts do not occur in the middle of a summer heatwave.

Yes, this would cost money and that is why the whole story is damn painful. We have the money. We have the money

We are sitting here with close to 10% of our workforce unemployed. This is because of a lack of demand. If there were more demand from any source, this would employ many of these workers. These are workers who have the necessary skills and desire to work. Remember: the vast majority of them were working before the housing bubble collapsed.

We were caught off guard when the storm hit, having missed the warnings in the area. I saw the clouds as I drove to the grocery store, and worried that my husband and children would walk to the community pool only to find it closed. The grocery store lost power while I was there.By the time I left the grocery store, the sky had opened up. I raced to the pool to make sure my family wasn’t there or walking home in the storm. I arrived home to fine them safe and dry, and the house without power.

We had better luck, I guess, than Baker. Our power came back on Sunday night, after the kids went to bed. As we sat waiting for the air conditioning to return the house to a comfortable temperature, we tried to count the number of times we’d lost power this year. That was as simple as counting the storms that have come and gone since the But the water restrictions were still in effect.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) announced water restrictions because the storms left the Potomac Water Filtration without power. That’s WSSC’s main water production plant, providing about 70% of the water for the 1.8 million residents Montgomery and Prince George’s counties (including us) affected by the restrictions — up to and including limited toilet flushing.

The water restrictions were lifted yesterday afternoon, and everything returned to normal — for the moment.

The water restrictions after the storm didn’t seem strange, because we’d had to comply with water restrictions only weeks earlier, or face a potential $500 fine, when an eight-foot section pipe in Potomac, MD, showed signs of failing.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission issued the temporary order after technicians sensed that there could be weaknesses in the concrete pipe — at eight feet wide, the largest in the system — near Tuckerman Lane and Gainsborough Road in Montgomery. Round-the-clock work is being done on the pipe.

The utility hopes that the limits will reduce water use by about one-third, officials said. They want to ensure that fire departments in the two counties have adequate water pressure to fight fires. Residents can continue to drink tap water. Car washes that use recycled water are not affected, and the restrictions do not affect people on wells or municipal water systems. If the restrictions fail and water pressure drops, it is possible that bacteria could seep into the water, but that is not an issue now, officials said.

…This is not the first time a massive main has caused major problems for the WSSC. In late 2008, a concrete main 66 inches in diameter burst along River Road in Bethesda, stranding cars amid a torrent of frigid water and requiring motorists to be rescued by helicopter and firefighters in boats. Other large water-main breaks in the past several years have led to boil-water advisories for homes, businesses and hospitals as well as the temporary closure of schools and day-care centers.

Although the WSSC implemented an 8 1/2 percent rate increase to pay for system improvements — a fee plan that took effect Thursday — officials concede that the pace of repairing and modernizing its infrastructure has been slow. Previously proposed rate increases have been rolled back by politicians in favor of other priorities, and the six-member operating board has often engaged in political infighting.

In 2008, about 1,700 pipes leaked or broke. A 90-year record was set in 2007 with 2,129.

The early detection and fast action prevented what would have been an even more catastrophic failure than the December 2008 water main break.

What was that about investing in our crumbling infrastructure, again?

I ask because a water main somewhere in Montgomery County, Maryland, ruptured today and washed out much of my day. Though my experience was nothing compared to what some people had to deal with.

A massive underground pipe rupture flooded River Road with four feet of rapidly swirling water this morning — trapping motorists, blocking a major commuter artery linking Washington with the Maryland suburbs and leading to the dramatic helicopter rescue of a woman and a child from one of the vehicles.

The break caused "widespread water outages" in school buildings across lower Montgomery County, officials said, affecting the heating system in some cases as well. As a result, all schools will close 2 1/2 hours early this afternoon, the school system announced just after 11 a.m.

The aging, 66-inch water pipe burst shortly before 8 a.m., sending a four-foot wall of water onto River Road near Congressional Country Club in Bethesda and trapping 15 people in about a dozen vehicles. Most got out of their cars on their own and reached dry land with help from rescue crews, boats and ropes, officials said.

But "as the water became more and more turbulent," five others had to be evacuated from their vehicles, said Richard Bowers, acting Montgomery fire chief.

See, it can’t all be blamed on the storm. Water main breaks are a regular occurrence in this area, closing schools and roadways, wreaking havoc with commutes, and creating scenes both dramatic and humorous, as helicopters rescue stranded motorists and residents with a sense of irony break out their surfboards.


Hardly a week goes by that some water main — smaller than the two mentioned above — breaks or fails, causing water restrictions, flooding and making commutes a nightmare on a somewhat smaller scale. Just reading Dr. Gridlock’s traffic updates in the Post, which includes water main breaks that impact traffic, is enough to give you an idea of the size and scope of the problem.

Here in the Metro D.C. area, we don’t just have an infrastructure, we have an infrastructure problem, or even an infrastructure maintenance problem. We have a political will problem that keeps us from putting people to work. So we choose to have infrastructure problems, and infrastructure problems. In some cases the problems are old, as with the 4-foot crack found in 2009 in a water main that was incorrectly installed 44 years ago. And, as the article about that water main breach pointed out, in many cases, it’s because of old pipes and "virtually no inspections."

A contractor did not lay the 66-inch-diameter concrete pipe in the required bed of gravel, which is used to cushion pipes to prevent cracks and corrosion, the report found. A four-foot tear was found in the part of the pipe that had been laid against the rock, according to a report by Lewis Engineering & Consulting of Gainesville, Fla.

Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission officials said the findings raise larger concerns for their 5,500-mile system of water pipes. The utility is pulling 1965 records for that pipe segment to determine what, if anything, the utility’s inspector noted about the installation.

WSSC’s aging pipes have been breaking in growing numbers over the past 20 years, and the River Road flooding revealed how quickly the larger breaks can become life-threatening. Television viewers worldwide watched Dec. 23 as firefighters in wet suits and helicopters rescued a dozen motorists from vehicles stranded in the cascade of frigid, muddy water.

… WSSC officials have said they are most concerned about larger, concrete pipes because they can explode without warning under high water pressure and cause widespread damage. WSSC leaders say such pipes should be scrutinized every five years but conducted virtually no inspections from 2001 to 2006, when the utility received no rate increase in some years and small ones in others. Some pipes have been inspected just once or twice in the past three decades, according to the utility.

The problem is either one of inadequate funding, or resource management, depending on whom you ask. But dwindling inspections in our area is part of a pattern of an "out-of-sight-out-of-mind" approach to infrastructure.

Some of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s biggest pipes have been inspected just once or twice in the past three decades, although WSSC officials said they should be scrutinized every five years. The 66-inch main that exploded along River Road in the winter, forcing helicopter rescues of drivers stranded in the torrent, had not been inspected in 10 years, WSSC officials said.

WSSC officials blame the inspection cuts on funding shortages earlier this decade. But ample funding in recent years didn’t help it keep up with replacing worn-out pipes. Although the WSSC had $130.6 million to replace 108 miles of water pipe over the past four fiscal years, it completed 81 miles. In one year, the utility replaced 16.6 miles of pipe, although it was budgeted for 27. The unspent money was returned to its general fund.

The WSSC’s troubles are symptomatic of a national problem. Out of sight and out of mind, underground pipes receive little attention until fire hydrants go dry or water gushes into basements. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 240,000 water mains break nationwide every year.

Yet, WSSC said last year that half of their water mains will reach the end of the 60-to-100-year lifetimes in the next 15 years. Meanwhile, they’re busy setting records. Even pipes buried in the 1970s and 1980s are bursting. In 2008, 1,700 pipes leaked or broke, surpassed only by the record of 2,129, set in 2007.

Development in the are is only likely to add to the stress on the area’s aging pipes. shortly after our house was finished, and we moved in, a water main on our street ruptured, leaving the neighborhood without water for more than a day. Our neighbors told us that the same thing happened every time a new house was built on our street, because the 60+-year-old pipes couldn’t handle the increased volume of water.

In fact, it took WSSC a couple of days to fix the problem because, according to their technicians, the pipes were so old and stressed that every time they fixed one leak, another one cropped up in same area. In the process of fixing it, the young oak tree that stood at the edge of the driveway (that some previous owner planted or allowed to grow practically on top of the water main access) was converted into wood chips and hauled away. Today, that corner of the yard bears no signs of its earlier trauma.

The region, however, is living out the trauma of earlier decisions. We avoided the trauma of water privatization, but live with the consequences of the changes made to stave off privatization.

The WSSC’s funding cuts were caused in large part by its history as a state-of-the-art system built from charging customers years of hefty rates. During debate over whether to privatize the agency in the 1990s, a state study found that the WSSC was overstaffed and inefficient. As it faced rate freezes from fiscal 1999 through 2004, the utility lost about one-third of its staff through attrition and an early retirement buyout of their gold IRA investments.

Local public officials were "somewhat interested" in decaying pipes earlier this decade, Griffin said, but streamlining the staff and keeping rates down became the "main day-to-day goal of the agency."

Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association, said the WSSC’s inspection cuts were typical of those made by utilities faced with flat revenue and rising costs as they tried to maintain safe drinking water.

It would see, a "no brainer" that money spent on staffing up WSSC and similar entities around the country, perhaps even training any of the unemployed who want these particular jobs, to maintain something so vital as the system that delivers clean, safe water to our homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, etc. The alternative is a graph drawn by one WSSC official, showing that the status quo will lead to a total breakdown of the system.

It’s not as if there’s no crying need. Earlier this year earlier this year the New York Times, in an article focusing on the challenges of D.C. water system also pointed out that we are not alone in the nation in grappling with this problem. The entire country is sitting on top of aging water pipes which will eventually fail, and sooner rather than later.

State and federal studies indicate that thousands of water and sewer systems may be too old to function properly.

For decades, these systems — some built around the time of the Civil War — have been ignored by politicians and residents accustomed to paying almost nothing for water delivery and sewage removal. And so each year, hundreds of thousands of ruptures damage streets and homes and cause dangerous pollutants to seep into drinking water supplies.

One day, it’s a bridge collapsing in the Minnesota. Maybe the next, it’s a busted water main prompting helicopter rescues in Maryland. And may be the next it’s a dam burst in Iowa. If anything, our infrastructure is in worse shape than just a few years ago, when it was the topic of much discussion, and still little has been done about it.

Much can be done, though.

In March of this year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a report saying that local governments will need $5 billion a year over the next decade to upgrade sewer systems, in order to avoid tripling or quadrupling water and sewer rates. (Juxtapose that against the long-term joblessness we seem unwilling to address effectively, and its easy to imagine a growing number of Americans living in conditions most often found in developing countries.) That’s $50 billion to avoid a catastrophic failure of infrastructure that delivers a most basic human need — clean water.

And that’s where Baker is right, again. This is a problem we have the money to fix.

This is where DC’s power failure comes in. What would be the problem if Congress dispensed 400-500bn dollars to the states to be spent on upgrading infrastructure such as electric power lines, mass transit systems, and water and sewage treatment facilities? The stimulus passed by Congress last year started on this path, but did not go nearly far enough.

This spending could be financed by requiring the Federal Reserve Board to buy and hold the bonds used to pay for the projects. If the Fed held the bonds, then the interest would be paid to the Fed, which, in turn, would then be rebated to the Treasury. That means that there is no additional interest burden on our children for the deficit hawks to whine about.

Instead, our children will get a modern infrastructure that doesn’t jeopardize the country’s economic and physical health.

Not to mention out children will benefit from living in communities where more people are working and keeping others working by creating demand, and increasing state and local government revenues.

Quite simply, people who are earning paychecks spend their money on goods and services, thus securing the employent of those who provide goods and services. Plus they pay sales taxes that state and local governments rely on for revenue. Oh, and if they keep their jobs and keep their homes, they pay property taxes that state and local governments use to fund schools and deliver other services.

Instead, right now state and local governments are about to fire 481,000 workers.

To cover for lost tax revenues, local governments will fire nearly 500,000 workers in the coming year, according to a national survey of counties and cities released Tuesday.

The National League of Cities, the National Association of Counties, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that 270 local governments planned to collectively lay off 8.6 percent of their workforce from the previous fiscal year to the next one. That percentage of all local public sector workers across the country amounts to 481,000 people. The report’s authors expect local governments to make even more spending cuts in the near future.

"Local governments across the country are now facing the combined impact of decreased tax revenues, a falloff in state and federal aid and increased demand for social services," the report notes. "Over the next two years, local tax bases will likely suffer from depressed property values, hard-hit household incomes and declining consumer spending."

The cuts are deep: 63 percent of cities and 39 percent of counties reported cutting public safety personnel like firefighters and police officers. Fresno, Calif., submitted a 2010 budget with 220 layoffs, according to the report. Flint, Mich. laid off 23 of 88 firefighters. In Brevard County, Fla., 38 Sheriff’s deputy positions are on the chopping block. The city of Dallas, Texas is set to fire 500, mostly people in the library system. And Portland, Ore. is firing 120 teachers.

Meanwhile, we’ve committed to spending another $37 billion on the war in Afghanistan, on which we’ve spent more than $286,209,430,000 to date, and which recently leaked documents portray as a hole down which we’re pouring a constant stream of lives and money.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure bank — an idea that’s been kicked around for more than a year now, to establish a entity that would finance critical investments in infrastructure — died this week due to congressional disagreements over scope and amount of discretion it would have.

And so an idea that could potentially put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work, and keep even more working with the demand ceates … will have to wait. Indefinitely.

It’s almost as if, as Les Leopold said earlier, we are afraid to create the jobs we need. We’ve been told that the private sector will create jobs if the governments out of the way, and (more recently) if we suffer enough. But thus far it hasn’t happened. (I’m no economist, but perhaps the private sector just doesn’t expand when demand is shrinking.) We’ve been told we can afford it, though it’s clear from what we do spend money on that we have the money. We’ve been told that government action would somehow be a bigger threat to our freedom than the destitution and downsized dreams that will result from long term unemployment.

We have heard it all so much that we’ve come to believe it. We have been cowed — too frightened forge a better future.

Americans have grown fearful. Most believe, not surprisingly, that the country is headed in the wrong direction. For the first time ever, most Americans believe their children may not fare as well as they have. We spend nearly as much as the rest of the world combined on our military, chasing phantoms across the world. Conservatives in both parties rail about debt and deficits. They line up to support adding another $33 billion in emergency spending for the misbegotten war in Afghanistan, while blocking the $23 billion needed to forestall the layoff of a staggering 275,000 teachers across the country.

Washington is crazed about debt and deficits, but the real deficit is in fortitude, not finances. Consider the contrast between this country emerging from the Great Depression and World War II and now.

… Instead of forging the new economy needed to revive a broad and prosperous middle class, we are focused on balancing our accounts. With states and localities facing crippling budget crises, with school districts shutting down summer school, eliminating after school programs from athletics to tutorials, laying off teachers and increasing class size, the Congress blocks vitally needed bills to provide aid to states, and to put people to work. The president acknowledges a staggering public investment deficit in the foundations of a new economy —in education and training, modern infrastructure, research and development—and then calls for a three-year hard freeze on domestic spending, while the military budget continues to rise. Republicans and conservative Democrats join with the banking lobby to weaken financial reform, with Big Oil to frustrate the transition to new energy, with the insurance and drug companies to sustain an unaffordable health care system.

From the economy to the Gulf oil disaster, we turn away from opportunities to build a better economy, protect our environment, and make any number of choices that could lead us out of our current crises and prevent or protect us against future crises. Not only have we become helpless as a people, we’ve become accustomed to our helplessness, to the point of embracing it.

As a nation, we are becoming more and more accustomed to a sense of helplessness. We no longer rise to the great challenges before us. It’s not just that we can’t plug the oil leak, which is the perfect metaphor for what we’ve become. We can’t seem to do much of anything.

We are submitting to this debacle with the same pathetic lack of creativity and helpless mind-set that now seems to be the default position of Americans in the 21st century. We have become a nation that is good at destroying things — with wars overseas and mind-bogglingly self-destructive policies here at home — but that has lost sight of how to build and maintain a flourishing society. We’re dismantling our public school system and, incredibly, attacking our spectacularly successful system of higher education, which is the finest in the world.

…How is it possible that we would let this happen?

We’ve got all kinds of sorry explanations for why we can’t do any of the things we need to do. The Democrats can’t get 60 votes in the Senate. Our budget deficits are too high. Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck might object.

Meanwhile, the greatness of the United States, which so many have taken for granted for so long, is steadily slipping away.

We’re not that much different than the rest of the country, in that sense. Our problem is the politics of powerlessness. We have any number of problems staring us in the face, and we have on hand the resources to, if not fix them, then make a serious dent in fixing them.

Yet we are paralyzed in the face of our challenges we’ve been told government shouldn’t’ solve them. (That’s the real message, because it’s not a question of resources. As Dean says, we have the money.) We’re paralyzed in the face of problems we’re told should only be solved if someone can make a profit doing it. Even if that profit comes in the form of a government contract that costs us more than the government simply hiring people to do the work.

But there are emotions that sometimes accompany helplessness, and that can eventually overpower it.

Yesterday, as I stood in line for the bush to take me home, two men who were waiting for the same bus groused about still having no electricity days after a storm that only lasted a few minutes. One man groused about the apparent shortage of workers and resources to restore power, as well as a lack of investment in planning and technology to prevent extended outages in the future, finishing his rant by saying it should be a priority to do all of the above

The other man responded with a familiar question,"Where would the get the money?"

His fellow commuter exploded into an expletive laden tirade.

"Where would they get the f*****g money?" he sputtered. "With all the things we spend money on in this country — with wars and tax cuts — we have the g*d*mn money. We have the f*****g money! Politicians just don’t want to spend it on anything we need. They don’t want to spend it on something that might do people some f*****g good!"

His rant was met with the kind of uncomfortable silence reserved for someone who breaks with protocol and mentions the unmentionable — however true it pay be. In his case, he broke with the polite fiction that our problems are too complex for mere citizens to grasp, and that our elected officials and political leaders have our best interests in mind, and are doing everything they can to find solutions.

By the time we got on the bush, the awkward silence had had its effect, and the angry man apologized for his "outburst" before finding his seat.

I sat down to the other man who’d asked where the money would come from.

"He’s right, you know," I said. "It’s not a question of whether we have the money. It’s that we don’t have our priorities straight."

"I know," the other man said. "And I guess he’s right to be angry too." Then he sighed, shrugged, and turned back to his reading for the commute home. So did I.

Anger may end up being the ultimate antidote to our politics of powerlessness. But it can have the same destructive power as a natural force — like water — unleashed after being pent up so long.

In the meantime, we still wait, for what I don’t know — while the waters rise.

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