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Notes From the Blackout

Having just moved to Brooklyn, I was center stage for the "Blackout of ’03." The most salient feature of the event here was how calm New York City was. People were wandering the streets of my neighborhood well after dark (and no, not in order to mug other people). Spontaneous street parties arose in a number of places. Everyone was talking to everyone else. Strangers would gather around someone on her stoop with a transistor radio or sitting in his car listening to the news. In Brooklyn, even traffic flowed smoothly. At busy intersections cars pulled to a stop on their own. One driver would wave the other through. People stopped for pedestrians at crosswalks without a traffic light or the threat of a ticket to make them do so. I heard of two minor incidents of looting, both in the worst neighborhood in the borough. One person in the city died as a result of the blackout… from a heart attack.

An exception to the generally civil behavior was the police. The morning of the blackout (OK, so it wasn’t during the blackout, I admit, but the story is good so I put it in) a cop pulled in the wrong way onto our one-way street, parked in front of a fire hydrant, and ran into the deli. He came back out with a cup of coffee. My wife expected to see him back out onto the main road, but no, he just continued down the street the wrong way to the next intersection. Hey, a man’s gotta have his cuppa joe, don’t he?

The evening of the blackout, a local Italian restaurant was doing booming business selling pizza: their oven was gas-powered and therefore operational. A large crowd had gathered and there was no parking in the immediate area. Two off-duty cops left the police station just down the street and drove up to the corner where the restaurant is. They double-parked their SUV, with its rear end blocking the crosswalk. The passenger got out and ran into the restaurant. For the entire ten to fifteen minutes it took to get their food, the driver sat in the car (he did put his hazards on), forcing other cars and pedestrians to detour around him. You don’t expect New York’s finest to park legally and walk a friggin’ block, do you?

Civil society, given a chance, works far better on its own than statists can conceive. The government sits atop it like a parasite, and is most often a major threat to its smooth functioning.

The Cause of the Blackout Swiftly Identified

Somewhat predictably, The New York Times was immediately able to pin the blame for the blackout where it belonged: on the free market. An editorial on Saturday by Robert Kuttner claimed that "deregulation" was the cause of the event.

There are, of course, several problems with his thesis. The first is that no electricity deregulation has actually occurred. The government, rather than simply ceasing to interfere in the market for electricity, instead substituted one set of complex regulations for another. Whatever the right word for this is ("re-regulation"?), it’s not deregulation. That’s just a trendy term the proponents of the new regulations employed to market them.

Kuttner contends that the "discipline of free markets" can’t be expected to work for electricity, because it can’t be stored in large quantities. Kuttner has apparently failed to notice that sushi, haircuts, concert performances, airline seats, and countless other goods cannot be stored long or at all, and yet markets for them work just fine.

He also holds that the "fairly fixed demand" for electricity makes the market for it different than other markets. Startlingly, when Kuttner says this he doesn’t seem to notice that he explained why the demand is relatively constant in his previous paragraph: consumer prices are still regulated! Of course, if electricity prices don’t rise to reflect a shortage, then demand will remain where it was. What could be more obvious than that this "fairly fixed demand" is a "fairly predictable result" of the very sort of regulation for which Kuttner longs?!

Finally, an unkind critic might ask of Kuttner: what about the blackouts of 1959, 1961, 1965 and 1977? If Kuttner can tell, one day after the event, that deregulation caused the 2003 blackout, can we also conclude that regulation caused the previous ones?

To be fair, Kuttner is partially correct in blaming the blackout on economic theory: "deregulation," as it is practiced today, is a conceit of economists who think they can use mathematical models to construct something that, while not a free market, is so much like one that no one will be able to tell the difference.

But, like margarine, these schemes always leave a funny aftertaste that real butter doesn’t have.

The Non-Cause of the Blackout Swiftly Identified

While on the subject of the blackout’s cause, I wonder if anyone else was puzzled by Bush’s statement, only a few hours after the outage began, that, while no one had any idea what had caused it, he knew without a doubt that it hadn’t been terrorists. How could he be so sure, if he didn’t know yet what had happened? Granted, by that point he was probably fairly certain that no terrorist had bombed a power plant or flown a plane into one. But perhaps they thought of something else, of which most people hadn’t conceived, that would cause a blackout. After all, our government itself asserted that no one could have foreseen terrorists using box cutters to hijack planes and turn them into missiles. But the terrorists thought of it. How does Bush know, without knowing the cause of the event, that there isn’t some new tactic that "no one" has foreseen?

I certainly have no inkling that it was terrorists. Most likely it was simply a big screw-up. But Bush’s statement demonstrates the frantic PR concerns of the administration. I think we can count on it "definitively ruling out" terrorism as the cause of any disaster that was not unambiguously perpetrated by terrorists.

August 18, 2003