Government is under assault these days, both as an institution and as an entity employing unionized workers. The struggling job market, the debt, the deficit—the blame for these is routinely placed on government and the people paid by government. The private sector, the theory goes, is more accountable to the public since it must compete for consumers and risks going bankrupt.
That philosophy loses merit with one word, one series of letters to make a chirpy name that has become synonymous in the Washington, D.C. area with incompetence, greed, and arrogance.
Due to a terrible storm, hundreds of thousands of Washington area customers lost power last week. The storm was not Pepco's fault. The appalling response to it and failure to prepare for it was Pepco's fault. The best the power company could offer in the days after the storm was a promise that most customers would have their power restored within five days. That's enough of a burden, but when the region was suffering an historic heat wave, it was unbearable. Pepco can't control the weather, but it can prepare for it better, by removing old tree branches and putting power lines underground. That costs money. Pepco has money: Its parent company, the Washington Post's Cortland Milloy notes, pulled in two-year profits of $267 million. And its chairman, Joseph M. Rigby, earns nearly $1 million a year, not including stock and bonuses. Milloy reports that the power company saddled a daycare center with $10,000 in fees to pay for the electricity used to clean up after the day care center was flooded. When the small operation said it couldn't pay, Pepco threatened to turn off the power. Eventually—after two years—the daycare center was able to pay off the bill, and the lights were kept on.
The lights were not on for hundreds of thousands of capital-area customers for long after the storm. But that isn't stopping Pepco from collecting: A letter-writer in the Washington Post reported that after days without power, he saw the welcome sight of a Pepco worker walking up his driveway. Except that the worker was not there to restore power. He was there the read the meter. The fact that the letter-writer was not later indicted for homicide is a testament to human self-control.
So many people had no electricity. But guess what? They got their mail. Yes, the U.S. Postal Service, which is alternately attacked as too expensive, poorly-run, and anachronistic, got the job done. They delivered the mail, even in the storm.
My local libraries, paid for with federal funds but also consistently under threat of defunding, were also open. There were books, computer access, and air conditioning for people who had lost power in their homes. Public libraries became a refuge for those who were at the mercy—if you can call it that—of Pepco.
Natural disasters often catch us unaware and cause environmental and economic distress. But who steps up to help? Government. It's federal workers who have been fighting the forest fires in Colorado. They don't always do the best job or prepare well enough (such as in Hurricane Katrina), but they are there. Which is more than we can say for Pepco and its well-compensated executives.