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Deep in the Snow of Texas
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Deep in the Snow of Texas

How much do we want governments to invest in events that are very disruptive but also very rare?

Frozen power lines seen hanging near a sidewalk on February 1 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images.)

Funny thing about Texas: Every other driveway has a Super Duty truck in it–the kind you can run a snowplow with–but nobody can deal with a little bit of winter weather. 

At least, that’s true in the parts of the state where the people are. In the far west of the state, they get real winter sometimes (they call that town Alpine for a reason) and the panhandle town of Dumas is a lot closer to Denver than it is to Houston, so they’re used to winter, too. But almost all of the people (86 percent or so) live along the I-35 corridor or east of it in the places that give Texas its hot, muggy reputation. 

Those places are in meltdown right now—or, rather, they are praying for meltdown: of the snow and ice that has brought urban and suburban life in Texas to a temporary halt. In Dallas, you pretty much can forget about Uber or food delivery, nearly 2,000 flights have been canceled, and only the brave and the desperate are on the roads. You know things are serious because they’ve even closed down the shooting ranges: We have a shooting range here that’s open on Christmas

In Austin and elsewhere, thousands are without power. Gov. Greg Abbott is being ritually denounced by the usual partisan know-nothings as though this were a replay of the grid failure of 2021, but the grid is humming along just fine, producing as much power as Texans need, according to the people who oversee it. The problem is that when tree branches ice up, they get heavy and fall on powerlines, knocking out service. Fixing that is slow work when you’re driving around in a service truck on a surface better suited for a Zamboni. It is also mostly the work of local power companies, not the business of the governor or a state agency. 

The public-policy angle of this story, so far, is that there isn’t really one, except a recurring question that is of some interest to me and that will be of great interest when it comes to adapting to climate change: How much do we want governments to invest in events that are very disruptive but also very rare? Rare but recurring events present some real challenges for cost-benefit calculations. 

Of course, this varies from application to application. The wise person builds his house for the hottest and coldest days of the year, not for the average day, and well-engineered power systems are designed with an eye on peak loads rather than average loads. But we don’t typically build city streets or intercity roads to accommodate the heaviest traffic flow imaginable. We routinely build parking lots around shopping centers or sports stadia that we expect to fall short of total demand in some circumstances. Our police forces typically are scaled for a hot Saturday night, not for the George Floyd riots or, Heaven help the poor people of Philadelphia, the prospect of either losing or winning the Super Bowl.  

Dallas doesn’t get a lot of snowstorms: How much do Dallas taxpayers want to spend on a fleet of snowplows and an army of operators that would be, in any given year, five or 10 times what’s needed, in order to have abundant resources on hand for the rare but recurring event of a heavy winter storm? How much does Austin want to spend? Houston? Brownsville? The average snowfall in El Paso is 28 millimeters per year, but it is possible that El Paso could get whacked with a big snowstorm. In 1987, two feet of snow fell on El Paso in less than 24 hours. El Paso probably is not ready for another snow dump like that—and it probably shouldn’t be. 

When I lived in Connecticut, the Metro North railroad would routinely be delayed in the fall—sometimes for hours—by the presence of wet leaves on the train tracks. It rains in Connecticut every year, and there have been wet leaves on the tracks in Connecticut for as long as there have been trains there, but nobody has invested in the resources to deal in a more efficient way with that annual trouble. Why? Maybe it’s a hard problem. Maybe it just never made it to the top of the list. 

Resources are finite, tradeoffs are necessary, and competing goods have to be prioritized. 

In situations such as the current one in Texas (or, even more so, in the February 2021 disaster), you want a flexible and focused public sector along with an active and engaged civil society. I joke about those suburbanites in their F-350s, but I also know that in 2021 a lot of those guys were using those trucks to check on elderly and disabled people. I am confident that if the local grocery stores were to stay closed for a month, nobody in my church would have to miss a meal, and neither would any of the people in the various congregations and organizations with which we have relationships. I think there is a desire for more community action and more engagement among certain Americans, but they don’t want to deal with bureaucracies that want to fine you for feeding the hungry or that insist that you can help your neighbors only with the bureaucrats’ permission and on their terms. 

Here’s a point of comparison: A good truck-mounted snow plow costs about the same as a really nice AR-15 rifle, and in most places the local authorities would surely act as though there were an armed insurgency if we started plowing our own streets when they failed to get the job done.  

But, of course, we don’t want amateurs trying to fix downed power lines. What we want to is rage-tweet at Ted Cruz about how this is all, somehow, his fault. Sen. Cruz was raked over the coals of cliché for leaving frozen and powerless Houston for Cancun during the 2021 shutdown, but I still say it was the right thing to do, and his worst mistake in that whole affair was groveling for the howling mob: The situation was going to be precisely the same whether the senator was sitting in his River Oaks mansion smoking a good cigar in front of the fireplace with the generator running or whether he was sunning his senatorial tootsies in Cancun. “Bad look,” the critics scoffed. I think the critics should have tried harder in school and given themselves at least the option to jet off to sunny Mexico. 

People who take care of themselves—in an emergency or any other time—are, after all, a net social benefit: Nobody is going to have to expend any emergency resources taking care of the people with the Super Duty trucks and the generators and six weeks’ worth of beer and burritos in the rainy-day cache. People who can take care of themselves are the only people who can take care of others. 

There is more to community life than politics. It is true that every dollar we have spent toward trying to build a daft coast-to-coast border wall could have been used to improve the power grid and invest in emergency preparedness. The same is true of every dollar we’ve spent subsidizing mediocre community theater in your hometown. Tradeoffs are inescapable and they always will be—until hell freezes over and long after Texas thaws out.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.