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Private Individual Solutions Don’t Work

“Workarounds for the wealthy” Not The Answer to A Declining Public Sphere 

It’s been my unfortunate experience to observe that readily available public policy solutions to problems in our public sphere and responses to our environmental woes are almost always attacked based on allegedly huge costs. Claims of bureaucratic red tape and government inefficiency are a close second.

Whether the issue is conversion to wind and solar renewable energy sources to avert climate disaster;  or installation of pollution controls to prevent disease and ecological collapse; local or organic food production; or preservation of the last remaining forests and sensitive landscapes, the drumbeat of opponents is always based on costs, particularly costs that would hit homeowners via the property tax.   

So, needless to say, I am baffled by the gross contradiction of those same opponents to public solutions, as they pursue tremendously costly and inefficient individual private responses.

The same people who oppose a 5 CENT PER MONTH increase in their electric bills (that’s what RGGI would have cost the average homeowner, until Gov. Christie killed it as just “another tax” that put NJ business at a competitive disadvantage) and attack wind and solar as too expensive have no problem with spending $40,000 – $80,000 on a back up generator.

Gated communities and private security have long been the symbol of the wealthy’s private divorce from public life.

But that mentality is now creeping into many other areas of public life –

A few years back, I recall being outraged after reading about the existence of private fire companies.

This is a true story: I can’t recall where it was (southern California wildfires?), but I watched a video of a fire company respond to the scene and put out a wildfire to protect a client’s home. But they stood there and watched it burn down a neighbor’s house.

Not only is that morally abominable, but it is far less efficient to provide police and fire service on an individual contract basis – it’s called “public goods” and the technical efficiency is a result of economies of scale.

How bad can it get, I thought.

But, the mind boggles to read of the recent “market response” to “opportunities” to “meet consumer demand”-  Check out “Helpjet”, via Naomi Klein:

In the past six years, we have seen the emergence of private firefighters in the United States, hired by insurance companies to offer a “concierge” service to their wealthier clients, as well as the short-lived “HelpJet”—a charter airline in Florida that offered five-star evacuation services from hurricane zones. “No standing in lines, no hassle with crowds, just a first class experience that turns a problem into a vacation.” And, post-Sandy, upscale real estate agents are predicting that back-up power generators will be the new status symbol with the penthouse and mansion set.  

So, with that in mind, lets take a look at a story in today’s Bergen Record, which purports to give homeowners advice on how to protect their homes from storm. Oh, they sprinkle in a few “low cost” options, but the thrust of the story is warped, detached, and just plain disgraceful in its premise (see: You can’t beat Mother Nature but homeowners do have options

The thrust of the Record story is what NY Times columnist Nick Kristoff recently dubbed “workarounds for the wealthy”.

In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn’t a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It’s a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out. […]

More broadly, the lust for generators is a reflection of our antiquated electrical grid and failure to address climate change. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our grid, prone to bottlenecks and blackouts, a grade of D+ in 2009.

So Generac, a Wisconsin company that dominates the generator market, says it is running three shifts to meet surging demand. About 3 percent of stand-alone homes worth more than $100,000 in the country now have standby generators installed. …

That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.

It’s manifestly silly (and highly polluting) for every fine home to have a generator. It would make more sense to invest those resources in the electrical grid so that it wouldn’t fail in the first place.

But our political system is dysfunctional: in addressing income inequality, in confronting climate change and in maintaining national infrastructure.

The Record story talks about $40,000 – $80-,000 generators, but also sump pumps. We learn that the “gold standard” is a sump pump that

It’s a pump that runs off the domestic water that comes into the house,” said Medaglia. “For every gallon you use, you pump out two gallons of water.”

Medaglia estimates that a typical sump pump can dump 1,400 to 1,600 gallons of water an hour, and costs $400 to $600. A water-powered sump pump can remove about 1,000 gallons of water an hour and costs about $1,000 to $1,400.

Lets do a little math: 1,600 gallons an hour is 38,400 gallons per day per home. At one gallon per 2 pumped, that amounts to 12,800 gallons of drinking water

Think about thousands of homes doing that. Where is all that water going to go? If the sump pump discharges to the street, it will cause local flooding. If it discharges to a storm sewer, it will worsen flooding somewhere else.

But more importantly, where is all that water going to come from? Did the Record reporter consider the fact that during Sandy,  Gov. Christie was forced to declare a “state of water emeregency” and issue a mandatory water conservation emergency Order? If people were prohibited from using excess water to bath and clean indoors, how is that 12,800 gallons to operate the sump pump going to work out?

Since they have time and space to assign reporters to write detailed stories about these private individual “solutions”, do you think Record editors might want to cover how government responses can reduce risks?

Things like how good land use planning and zoning, infrastructure, and stricter environmental regulations might make things better for all of us, not just those who can afford a “gold standard” sump pump or a $40,000 generator?

But, getting back to broader issues, Kristoff gets to the root of a much broader problem.

So time and again, we see the decline of public services accompanied by the rise of private workarounds for the wealthy.

Is crime a problem? Well, rather than pay for better policing, move to a gated community with private security guards!

Are public schools failing? Well, superb private schools have spaces for a mere $40,000 per child per year.

Public libraries closing branches and cutting hours? Well, buy your own books and magazines!

Are public parks — even our awesome national parks, dubbed “America’s best idea” and the quintessential “public good” — suffering from budget cuts? Don’t whine. Just buy a weekend home in the country!

Public playgrounds and tennis courts decrepit? Never mind — just join a private tennis club!

We must reinvigorate the notion of the public interest, the public sphere, public space, public media, and collective public goods, like clean air, water, infrastructure, and a stable climate.

Taxes are the price we pay for a civilized community – the wealthy are sociopathic in their greed, individualism (I got mine jack), and lack of compassion for the public good.

Sunday sermon over now – you can get right back to shopping!

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