My Country ‘Tis of Thee….

If you are looking for an uplifting, “ain’t we great” post appropriate to the 4th of July, you probably need to stop reading now.

I began my reading this morning with Kurt Anderson’s Op Ed in the New York Times, on the downside of liberty. Anderson revisited the historic American tension between individualism and community, and concluded–in concert with many other contemporary observers–that Americans have confused a robust defense of individual rights with a wholesale abandonment of our civic obligations to the wider community. He argues that we have lost the ability to distinguish between individual rights and self-interested greed.

Anderson points to a cultural phenomenon. Thanks to the recent weather, I have been pondering a structural one.

As anyone who isn’t spending time in the arctic knows, we’ve been having an unprecedented heat wave. Much of the nation has also been battered by ferocious storms, and television news has been featuring visible evidence of the damage–especially shots of the downed power lines responsible for a massive loss of electricity. As of last night’s newscast, more than a million homes remained without power. Elderly people and children, especially, are at risk without air conditioning.

My question is simple: why don’t we bury our power lines? My answer is equally simple: because we have a political/economic structure that privileges short-term savings over long-term quality–a structure that rewards those who are penny-wise and pound foolish.

It costs more up front to bury our utilities. It’s cheaper–initially– to string lines. But not only does burying those lines improve the appearance of our cities and towns, it is much cheaper in the long run. It doesn’t take extraordinary storms to down the lines; more predictable weather also takes a toll. Over a period of years, utilities will more than save the extra dollars spent to bury the lines and consumers will enjoy more dependable service.

This same “penny wise, pound foolish” mind-set permeates our public services. Go to Europe (yes, I know, it is heresy to suggest that other countries might do some things better than we do) and walk on granite pavements that have lasted longer than most of our cities. Expensive to build, much less expensive to maintain and replace. Look at the current rush to sell off public assets–Toll Roads, parking meters, even the City-County Building–rather than spend what is necessary to maintain those assets for future generations.

In business, the triumph of the shareholder and manager over the entrepreneur-owner has meant that the next quarter’s bottom line is privileged over the long-term best interests of the enterprise. It’s more important to return an extra twenty cents per share now than to invest in improvements that will benefit the business ten years hence. In politics, it has always been the case that “long term” means “until the next election.” So we have the ridiculous spectacle of the State of Indiana returning $100 to each taxpayer rather than applying those funds to necessary improvements in education or infrastructure that won’t yield such immediate gratification.

Maybe it’s fitting that we have fireworks on the 4th of July. Children love fireworks, and we seem to have become a nation of children.


  1. Most of the time, I enjoy and heartily agree with your perspective. Today, however, I think I’m going to disagree – or, at least, try to give you another perspective to consider.

    There are three reasons I submit to you which deter the installation of underground power lines – at least, where I live. As they say, your mileage may vary.

    1. Cost – Power lines are “overhead” in my very rural neck of the woods not only because it is “simply” cheaper, but because it’s legally cheaper. Our power lines were first installed in the 1930’s, by the rural electric membership cooperative system. At the time, no legal easements were obtained (at least, not that any records can show). Folks were happy to get power to their homes. At that time, technology did not exist to install underground lines over the vast number of miles covered, and electricity was not reliable enough to make that investment. Today, any change from above to below-ground installation would require a monumental effort in acquisition of easements by the utility company.

    Today (as then), the vast majority of the lines in my county run across the road boundary of farm ground. Most of those miles have no other infrastructure (some have phone lines, but no cable, no fiber optics). Installation of underground lines would be prohibitively expensive, with the cost born by the citizens, because the effort would – quite literally – be breaking new ground.

    2. Logic (or lack thereof) – A new state highway construction project has reminded those of us in the country of how invasive and difficult it can be to work with the government. The local power supply company (still the rural electric membership corporation) has received an astonishing amount of resistance to its efforts to obtain new easements to move the power lines as a result of the highway project. This is from the people served by these power lines.

    3. Maintenance – It is not as simple as you imply to maintain underground lines. Where I live – with underground phone lines – the phone lines are subject to damage from animals (who seem to love to gnaw on the lines) and water. My phone service is (on the whole) no more reliable than my electricity service. There is also the periodic interference by farm equipment where it accidentally goes too deep and cuts a line or where the equipment runs into the service boxes. Farm equipment runs into power poles, too, but the tall, sturdy poles tend to be (a) more visible, (b) more resistant to brushes with heavy equipment and (c) easier to find and repair when a break does occur.

    With respect, I suggest that you are not considering the full scale of what you propose. Yes, underground lines can be wonderful, and over time will probably prove more cost-effective. In fact, the power and phone lines where I live are both run from the road to my house underground on the same conduit – something that was put into place when our home was built 18 years ago. You also see underground infrastructure in newer developments – again, new construction can take that into consideration in the development plan. As municipalities upgrade systems, you will likely see the gradual conversion to a more efficient delivery system for infrastructure – including power. Perhaps in my lifetime, in my very rural environment, power lines might be gradually moved underground as technology and funding permits.

    For now, I submit that a whole-sale conversion is simply impossible, legally, logistically, and financially. I am disappointed that you missed the big picture on this post, and even more disappointed that you had to end it with a petty remark about a nation that might include adults acting as children, but also includes a lot of hardworking, thoughtful people, who are trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got.

    Not a rant I would expect from you – particularly on Independence Day.

  2. You make some very valid points-but as you note, many of these impediments are more applicable to rural environments than to denser cities. My larger argument (okay, rant) was that our current politics and business incentives reward short-term savings over long-term benefits. I think there are sufficient examples to justify that observation even if one concedes that utilities provide a more complicated picture.

  3. I will add a note from one of my areas of expertise, IT. Companies overspent by 10s of billions of dollars by not addressing the Y2K problem during the early or even mid 1990s. By waiting until 1998 and 1999, the costs had skyrocketed. While I didn’t mind the pay raise, I did recognize the wastefulness of short-term thinking (Not this quarter, it will reduce our quarterly bottom line).

    I should also mention that many, if not most, companies paid for quick fixes and had to go back and pay for a more permanent solution.

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