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Outage Outrage

A Monumental Failure in Ethics.

by Barnabas
August 20, 2003

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Outage Outrage_Barnabas-A Monumental Failure in Ethics
Utilities now operate under voluntary guidelines developed by the reliability council, which in practice means no one has to comply.
–Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico, The New York Times, August 16, 2003.
I reject out of hand the notion that nothing could have been done to prevent the Great Blackout of 2003. No one has seriously defended the notion that it was an Act of God, and even if it was, the only reason it would affect such a huge chunk of real estate is that human beings designed that possibility into the system.

Of course something could have been done to prevent the wealthiest 100,000 square miles on earth, in two of its most technologically advanced nations, from going dark all at once. The word “too” when attached to “politically unpopular,” “expensive,” and “complicated” never explains why something cannot be done. It only explains why those who had the decisive power to do it chose not to do it. The only real reasons something cannot be done are that it is physically impossible to do (which no one is saying) or that nobody knows how to do it (no one is saying that either).

So let politics, economics, and engineering stand aside for the three minutes it takes to read this column, and consider that the blackout was foremost a monumental failure in ethics.

The first ethical question, “What harm was done?” will be answered by investigators in terms of measurable and tangible losses.

The second question, and it’s not as “rhetorical” as it may sound, is this: Did the blackout prevent any conceivably greater evil? Granted, when something preventable happens it is sometimes called the lesser of two evils. It’s a question that is dealt with often in the public square, particularly in relation to war. The United States bombed Hiroshima because of the conceivably greater evil of a land war on the Japanese homeland. More recently, the United States attacked the Iraqi homeland while citing the conceivably greater evil (to us) of some sort of massive attack on our homeland by the nation of Iraq. Both reasons have been argued, and will continue to be as long as there are Ph.D. candidates to write dissertations; but they were at least conceivably greater evils.

So what conceivably greater evil was averted by this blackout? Less efficiency? That won’t fly. Nothing could have less efficiency than what happened on August 14. Higher prices? That won’t fly; we pay what we have to now, and a lot more beside when our power breaks down. Lower profits? You cannot guess how little we care about that. You have to make a profit, of course, but not at the expense of the service you have promised to provide.

When the community places the administration of a key public utility in private hands, it’s the ethical responsibility of the community to pay the real costs of delivering dependable service. It’s the ethical responsibility of the utility to deliver the service short of cataclysmic acts of nature or human violence, but even then to localize the damage. To allow a whole system to go down because of local interruption — like a string of Christmas tree lights in 1940 — is absurd in the twenty-first century. Power is to society what blood is to the human body. To treat it like a consumer good that is sometimes available and sometimes not is to draw a marketplace analogy that doesn’t work and never will.

We keep being told that the private sector can serve public utilities better than the government can. If they can, it’s time they do. If they cannot but contract to anyway, draconian penalties are in order if they fail to deliver.

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