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KRISTOF: Declining tax rates, declining public services

  • ** FOR USE WITH AP WEEKLY FEATURES ** In this photo provided by Briggs & Stratton, standby generators are installed typically in a few hours. The generators are wired directly into the power grid of a home, relieving the homeowner of stringing cords from appliance to appliance. The generators connect to a natural gas line or propane tank. (AP Photo/Briggs & Stratton)

In upper-middle-class suburbs on the East Coast, the newest must-have isn't a $7,500 Sub-Zero refrigerator. It's a standby generator that automatically flips on backup power to an entire house when the electrical grid goes out.

In part, that's a legacy of Hurricane Sandy. Such a system can cost well over $10,000, but many families are fed up with losing power again and again.

(A month ago, I would have written more snarkily about residential generators. But then we lost power for 12 days after Sandy — and that was our third extended power outage in four years. Now I'm feeling less snarky than jealous!)

More broadly, the lust for generators is a reflection of our antiquated electrical grid and failure to address climate change. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave our grid, prone to bottlenecks and blackouts, a grade of D+ in 2009.

So Generac, a Wisconsin company that dominates the generator market, says it is running three shifts to meet surging demand. About 3 percent of stand-alone homes worth more than $100,000 in the country now have standby generators installed.

"Demand for generators has been overwhelming, and we are increasing our production levels," Art Aiello, a spokesman for Generac, told me.

That's how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.

It's manifestly silly (and highly polluting) for every fine home to have a generator. It would make more sense to invest those resources in the electrical grid so that it wouldn't fail in the first place.

But our political system is dysfunctional: in addressing income inequality, in confronting climate change and in maintaining national infrastructure.

The National Climatic Data Center has just reported that October was the 332nd month in a row of above-average global temperatures. As the environmental website Grist reported, that means that nobody younger than 27 has lived for a single month with colder-than-average global temperatures, yet climate change wasn't even much of an issue in the 2012 campaign.


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