Legends, fables, and myths crumpled beneath a freak October snow storm in Connecticut this past week. Leaf-laden trees fell and yanked wires and plunged over 800,000 homes into a power outage. Tales are told of families braving cold in dark living rooms; of bundled children beneath mounds of quilts; of schools doubling as shelters; of eight carbon monoxide deaths – all in upscale Connecticut, the home of well-heeled actuaries and drab insurance executives.
Look closely. You’ll see the carcasses of those fables pinned under the dead oaks and maples.
One long-idolized myth: Private business is always more efficient than government. Most victims are customers of Connecticut Light & Power, a Northeast Utilities subsidiary. CL&P President Jeff Butler infuriated weather forecasters when he said his company wasn’t warned of the storm’s strength. That collided with my own memory as well as Meteorologist Ryan Hanrahan’s: “Obviously CL&P either has a private forecasting firm that is just plain bad or they were not listening to some of us degreed meteorologists on TV in the state that were forecasting a crippling snowstorm. Friday morning Bob Maxon and I were forecasting up to a foot of snow that was ‘record-shattering and historic.’” Middletown Mayor Sebastian Giuliano was exasperated: “What’s frustrating is they had been projecting this storm for a good week before it hit.”
To be fair, Butler later apologized – and I won’t dare imagine the vice grip squeezing him now: The state attorney general promises an investigation; Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman threatens a lawsuit (no idle comment: her town sued CL&P before); West Hartford Mayor Scott Slifka called the utility’s response “beyond unacceptable” and dropped hints of another legal battle. And then there’s Governor Dannel Malloy, who took office in January and immediately flexed his muscle with union negotiators. He’s been civil while standing beside Butler in news conferences – but he’s not smiling. And he’s said he’s tired of excuses … And I wouldn’t want to be on the bad side of an unsmiling Governor Malloy …
I’m rootin’ for ya, Jeff. Sorry I can’t be there at the meeting. I’m scheduled to change a pillow case …
Yet I can’t help but notice the stark difference between CL&P and the city of Norwich, which owns its own utility company: Only 450 of its 22,000 customers lost power. All were back on line in an hour. Few lost electricity in tree-laden Wallingford, which also owns its own utility. Some of its residents opened their homes to their northern Meriden neighbors so they wouldn’t shiver while waiting for Godot (CL&P). If government is always bad and if private enterprise is always good, why aren’t Norwich and Wallingford residents threatening lawsuits because their kids are smothering under quilts?
Myth Number Two walked hand-in-hand with Myth Number One before both lay sprawled beneath the trees: Less is always better, so let’s slash our budgets and trim our work forces. CL&P sliced its spending on maintenance by 26 percent over a four-year period. Tree branches spread over the lines and begged the New England sky for strange weather (the state and municipalities share the blame; they balked at giving the utility permission in some cases).
And then there’s Myth Number Three: The profit motive is the donkey’s carrot: Companies snap and salute at the smell of money. Her majesty The Customer is always right … do anything for the customer … throw in the kitchen sink for the customer … love my customers – especially the regulars: love-‘em, love-‘em, love-‘em …
That dearly departed fable always limped. The operating margin for Norwich stood at 3.6 percent last year; multiply that by five times for CL&P. Innovative, entrepreneurial companies achieve profits through service, but many others trim maintenance costs: lean and mean descends into just plain mean. The monarchial customer becomes the pesky nuisance.
These myths died once before after October, 1929, when the stock market crashed courtesy the Lords of Finance. But their ghosts hovered and took bodily form again among contemporary Libertarians and the lords’ descendants, then crept their way back into the political mainstream. Some revere the fables as near-religious truths despite Scripture’s actual teaching. It’s a dead religion, erected to gods of wood and stone. If you doubt me, come to Connecticut, where those deities lay mute and still.