Everyday Armageddon

By Johnston, David Cay | Newsweek, December 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

Everyday Armageddon


Johnston, David Cay, Newsweek


Byline: David Cay Johnston

Disaster far greater than Sandy looms--unless we move fast to fix a badly broken system.

The politically ambitious governors of New York and New Jersey just might secure their parties' presidential nominations in 2016, provided they follow through on their promises to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Democrat Andrew Cuomo of New York and Republican Chris Christie of New Jersey both put themselves in the forefront of relief efforts and then promised that, come the next big storm (or, unsaid, another terrorist attack), the hardships will not be nearly as severe, because they will have invested in restoring the public and corporate infrastructure.

We cannot "risk letting history repeat itself with devastating consequences for our residents and our state," Cuomo tells Newsweek.

The two governors attacked the shortcomings of the area's electric utilities after millions of people in the tristate area were literally in the dark for days on end. Electric power may not be fully restored until Thanksgiving--in part because over the past two decades as the nation's population grew by a fourth, the number of utility workers fell by a fourth.

Christie went so far as to warn New Jersey's four electric utilities to get the power back on, pronto--or face a political storm he called Hurricane Chris. Cuomo, meanwhile, threatened to revoke the license of every electric utility in the Empire State, because so many people lost power and restoration has been excruciatingly slow. Then he appointed a blue-ribbon panel, with subpoena power, to investigate the utilities.

With voters desperate for a faster economic recovery, tired of do-nothing partisan gridlock, and eager to see problems solved, producing even modest but demonstrable success in restoring the public furniture could propel either governor to his party's nomination in 2016. Indeed, pretty much any project that would reduce commute times between New York and New Jersey would be a sure vote-getter.

Of course, the tough words and promises of rebuilding may just be tales told by politicians, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. As Washington and Wall Street quake on the edge of the imagined fiscal cliff, it's hard to imagine any politician winning support for massive spending on bridges and seawalls and new electrical poles. That seems about as likely as the Hudson River flowing through Manhattan. Oh, wait, that just happened.

If we are to avoid the next major -catastrophe--and it will come--then we have to start paying the bill now. America spends just 2.4 percent of its economy on infrastructure, compared with 5 percent in Europe. In Germany, the roads are smooth. In France, city halls do not have buckets to catch water from leaky roofs. In Italy, the trains actually run on time and serve surprisingly good meals in the dining car. And in the Netherlands, where existence depends on maintaining the sea gates and seawalls that hold back the North Sea, since much of the nation is at or below sea level, people feel safe from flooding.

Both Cuomo and Christie have built reputations for holding down taxes, but Sandy seems to have given each man an opportunity to do what's right instead of what's politically expedient. Christie, breaking with Republican dogma, said that taxes may have to be raised to pay for repairing damage from Sandy, especially in coastal towns. And both governors have promised to marshal the popular support and money needed to make physical improvements in utilities, roads and rail lines, bridges and water systems, and to work to improve telecommunications during emergencies. Achieving all this is likely to mean higher rates for electricity, natural gas, telephone and Internet service, and water, as well as new taxes to pay for making sure highways are more road than pothole.

The governors' staffs tell Newsweek that much of the money to repair, restore, and rebuild must come from Washington. …

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