The cost of hubris

As the state tries to get back on its feet, there is a lesson in humility not just for the residents but for everyone


Muhammad Hamid Zaman February 23, 2021
The writer is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor of Biomedical Engineering, International Health and Medicine at Boston University. He tweets @mhzaman

Like many others around the country and around the world, I also had family and friends in Texas who were badly affected by the cold spell that resulted in the collapse of basic services. My folks lost power for several days, lived in a frigid home and had to boil snow scraped from the front yard to have enough water to wash hands. They were among the lucky ones as they came out of it unscathed. Many were not as fortunate. My friends who work with low-income neighbourhoods in Austin, Houston and Dallas have told me stories of continued misery and pain in communities that are facing yet another assault of an unequal world.

As the state tries to get back on its feet, there is a lesson in humility not just for the residents of the state but for everyone. It should be clear that the slogans of exceptionalism are hollow and nonsense. Senators and governors can yell all they want about the greatest state in the greatest nation ever to grace the planet, but the lived experience of its residents tells a different story. I wonder what those who lost loved ones to hypothermia, or those still without power or water, think about this exceptionalism. I doubt if anyone would ever ask them.

It also became clear that while unregulated free market doesn’t work for the weak or the vulnerable, decency and humanity does. When the crisis hit, power companies surged their prices (since the demand was high!). People who had signed up for automatic payment to the power companies from their bank accounts lost tens of thousands of dollars. Some lost their entire savings. The power companies had spent millions on PR campaigns about equity — but they were making a killing, while killing hopes, dreams and savings. Those who did come to ease the suffering were community groups, non-profits and ordinary citizens. While the junior senator of the state, who is the biggest champion of cutting regulations, headed to a vacation, neighbours helped out. This was true not just for my family but for millions across the state.

Finally and most importantly, if there was ever a reminder about the importance of working together, this was it. The western part of the state, specifically El Paso, that was connected to the national grid handled the big freeze with its residents not losing power. The rest of the state had people who froze to death. The state’s electricity system failed not because of a freak event. Contrary to popular imagination, temperatures do drop in Texas frequently. The electricity system failed because the state had decided nearly a decade ago to cut itself off from the regional and national system. The state electricity system, ERCOT, was considered uniquely Texan — proud, independent and not in need of anyone else. With little appetite for regulation, a disdain for the federal government, and a belief that the market is always right, the state created a system that was destined to fail. It did fail and ordinary people (including those not fortunate enough to go to Cancun) paid the price. Unfortunately the real price was paid by the weakest in the state. The state may update its system as it reflects on what went wrong. I doubt if it will create any protections for the weak.

The biggest lesson of the Texas disaster is not climate change, or a malfunctioning electric grid — it is hubris. Disregard for working together, or failure to recognise that we live in a mutually dependent world, is a shortcut to a colossal failure. So next time someone says that he does not need to work with the opposition, or fails to recognise the team effort in winning the world cup, we should be very wary.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 23rd, 2021.

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