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June 9, 2008

Capitalism and the Night the Power Went Out


Despite being the finest people in the world, we Americans have a very short attention span – and even a shorter memory. We continuously have to complain, with the aid of cheap politicians, about “excessive” corporate profits. When we see someone making more money than we think they “deserve,” we are distraught and call for the government to “control” these profits. In essence, we forget about the massive good that a minimally regulated market has done to our quality of life, and point to these “unnecessary” profits to justify our skepticism about capitalism and appeal for increased government intervention.


Oh how easily we forget.


Last Wednesday, the power went out in my house. A massive storm had hit the Washington D.C. area and hundreds of thousands of homes were, within seconds, thrown back 100 years in time.


I arrived home on this hot evening to find everyone in shorts and sleeveless shirts – we had lost one of the greatest inventions in modern history – air conditioning.


When your house feels like a toaster oven, you want an activity that does not require you to perform any physical tasks, such as, perhaps, television? Unavailable. How about surfing the web? Not so much. What if we simply use the computer without accessing the Internet? Maybe, if you have a laptop and a long-lasting battery. But even that’s temporary.


Of course, the logical step would be to get out of the house, go to the mall, dine out and see the latest movie. Except, not a chance. Every traffic light within a multi-mile radius of my house had gone out. The main roads I would use to leave my house were backed up bumper-to-bumper for several miles. There was no point of interest that we would be able to reach in less than one or two hours, and with friends texting us about further tornado watches, neither would we want to try it.


So we were sweltering, bored, imprisoned, and . . . hungry. Indeed the only thing you want to eat when you’re in a sauna is ice cream, our stocks of which had long turned into a viscous mess that would become the next day’s cleaning project. And even though we had one more food-heating mechanism left, the stove, none of us had a particular desire to consume anything heated. The food in the fridge had long warmed up, and so did our water reserves.


We soon realized that our landline was also out of commission. We had our cell phones, but the batteries were running low and our chargers, of course, wouldn’t be of much help. We could not call up friends to kill some time, because there would be no way left for us to communicate with the outside world if our batteries ran out. Internet was also inaccessible from our cell phones, probably because of problems with the source.


Our lives had come to a halt, and with darkness setting in, things could only go further downhill. We showered before it was too late, and cleared our beds so we wouldn’t have to do it in the dark. Of course, our bodies were genetically designed to automatically flip the light switch every time we would walk into a dark room, only this time, nothing happened.


When darkness began to fall, we all gathered in the living room. We knew that very soon, things would get darker and worse. It was like an evening in Will Smith’s I Am Legend, where Smith’s character would prepare his defenses by sunset before the nocturnal zombies swarmed the streets.


Then it happened (the darkness, not the zombies). The house was completely and utterly silent – no television, no music playing, no phone ringing, no air conditioning and fridge going off, nothing. We could barely see each other’s outlines. A thunderstorm was still underway outside, and the occasional lightning would light up our faces in a manner more appropriate for a horror movie. There was a minor smell beginning to emanate from the kitchen sink, where food had been tossed into the disposal by someone who forgot that without power, nothing was going to be shredded or disposed of.


This went on for another full day. But we were the lucky ones. Our gas supply was not cut off, meaning we had a functioning stove and hot water. We had candles, flashlights and batteries for the flashlights. But others did not, and I can only imagine how much worse it was for them.


Now, I do not have a luxurious lifestyle. I have an American lifestyle. Virtually all Americans own or have easy access to televisions, telephones, cell phones, radios, computers, Internet, refrigerators, freezers, toaster ovens, microwave ovens, air conditioning, heating, washers, dryers, automatic garage doors and, well, light bulbs.


But 100 years ago, no one had most of these products. Only the very rich had a handful of these “luxuries,” and the rest lived not unlike the way we lived through that night.


Today, most Americans consider these items basic necessities. How did that happen? Let me say up front, government had nothing to do with it. The answer, my fellow Americans, is the free market. It is the prospect of profit that spurred most of these inventions, and the prospect of even more profit that created cheap methods of production and efficient distribution schemes that put these items in every American home. And because of some people’s prospect of profit, we all have a much, much – much – higher quality of life that has become so easily available that we take it for granted.


So, my friends, the next time you hear of companies making big profits, you can only smile and nod approvingly. For it is their profit that has made you live better than what only 100 years ago would have been the lifestyle of a king.


© 2008 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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