David R. Henderson  


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In Praise of Modern Technology

Early Saturday afternoon, the electric power at our home in Pacific Grove went out. We were out at lunch when it happened and when I came home, I thought it was a neighborhood-wide thing, something that happens for a few hours at a time a once or twice each winter. But I saw that the neighbors on both sides had lights on. When I walked back to my house, I noticed that our fuse box had been ripped away from the side of the house. I called Pacific Grove and Electric on my cell phone and worked my way through the automated menu to report the problem. That was about 1:45 and the recorded message said that PG&E would have someone there by 4:30. "Yeah, right," I thought. But, at about 3:15, a PG&E man came out, looked at the situation, and told me (1) I needed an electrician and (2) because of the hazard, he needed to cut off the power. He assured me that once the electrician had done the fix, we could call PG&E and they would come by within a few hours to do an "emergency reconnect." (His best guess was that the cause was a too-high truck driving on our busy street and yanking the power line that crossed the street.)

I tracked down an electrician in the yellow pages and he asked us to take pictures of the damage so that he, coming from Salinas, could know what parts to buy. We did so and e-mailed them to him from my iPhone. He got there with the right parts by about 5:15. His work was done by 7:30, but he charged us only for his original estimate of 2 hours at an emergency hourly rate plus parts. He didn't charge us for the almost 1.5 hour round trip between Salinas and Monterey. Thanks, Devon Fehn. The PG&E man showed up at about 10:30 p.m. and by 11:00 p.m. we had electricity again. Thanks, Adam I-don't-know-your-last-name.

Those 9 hours without electricity, though, reinforced in my mind the importance of having it. I had a lot of juice left in my computer and so I did a productive 30 minutes of work: I had been planning to do 2 hours but I didn't want to use the juice in case I needed the computer for something else. I used some of the remaining light to do the day's crossword puzzle and to start reading a book that I'm reviewing. By 4:45 p.m., I stopped and turned on the Warriors' game on the radio. By then my wife came home: she had gone to Starbuck's with her computer to work and be warm. We heard our beloved Warriors trounce the Atlanta Hawks and end their road trip with 6 wins and 1 loss. (I had anticipated 4 wins at most.) My wife and I also had a nice conversation without the distractions of modern life. Interestingly, part of our conversation was about what life in Britain was like when people didn't have electricity. I was reminded of something I had written in my review in Policy Review of Bill Bryson's book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. Of course, I couldn't go on the web to find it and show my wife. (I could have with my iPhone but I wanted to preserve power.) Here's the paragraph of my review that I had in mind:

Indeed, improvements in technology were so important that the one chapter Bryson devotes to something other than a room in the house or a physical area in or around the house is his chapter on the fuse box. Electricity truly revolutionized life. Bryson writes, "The world at night for much of history was a very dark place indeed." A good candle, he adds, "provides barely a hundredth of the illumination of a single 100-watt lightbulb." Although Bryson makes a good case for how important lighting was and is, he would have made an even stronger case had he drawn on the pathbreaking work by Yale University economist William D. Nordhaus. In a study done in 1996, Nordhaus found that failure to adjust appropriately for the plummeting cost of light has led economic historians to dramatically understate the growth of real wages over the last 200 years. That one invention, plus many others, led to a burgeoning middle class.

Thinks of the things we couldn't do. We couldn't watch the game on TV. We couldn't use our modem, although it was handy having an iPhone. We were careful about opening the fridge and freezer too much for fear that food would spoil. When I went to clean the cats' box, I needed to carry a lantern with me. Every time I went into a room, I reflexively turned on a light, with, of course, no effect. And that's just when we were without power for only 9 hours.

Electricity is part of the warp and woof [I think I used that term right: I've wanted to use it for years] of daily life. I love it. It's not exactly modern technology, which is why I at first put quotation marks around the word "modern." But iPhones are modern technology and, of course, they depend on electricity.

I'm one of the few people I know--I suspect Don Boudreaux is another--who figuratively pinches myself frequently at the wonders of modern living in what is still a somewhat-free economy. Thanks to all the people, known and unknown, dead and alive, who helped bring these wonders to this small-town boy from rural Canada.

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CATEGORIES: Growth: Consequences

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Vipul Naik writes:

Interesting meme possibility here:

Electricity gone from my house

Can only use iPhone to access Internet

Ken B writes:

@Vipul: Perhaps a haiku:

In creeping darkness,
History's still isolation --
the iPhone glows

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
Love the haiku.
@Vipul Naik,
Yes, but remember how you recharge an iPhone.

Tom West writes:

Electricity is part of the warp and woof of daily life.

I've always found it a little disconcerting how taking out a handful of electrical generation facilities (Niagara Falls, Hoover Dam, etc.) might easily result in the destruction of large swathes of North America far more effectively than almost anything else.

As far as I can tell, abruptly doing without electricity for a few months would require a population density perhaps 1/100th of current levels.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tom West,
It is pretty scary, isn't it? It's facts like that that convince me that there isn't that much of a terrorist threat in the United States--at least in the sense of people literally wanting to destroy large numbers of us and willing to act on that desire.
Moreover, I walk the talk. I still haven't got around to buying even a small generator.

John B. writes:

I believe it's "weft", not "woof".

I live in New Hampshire and have twice in the last few years lost power for more than five days. A few hours is quite different!

You get pretty good at using candles and so on, and my house has held enough heat that it stayed above freezing inside the whole time. The biggest loss I experienced is that I can't read in the evening: once it's dark outside, you might as well go to sleep.

Jason Thomas writes:


You could slap yourself in the face for living in a suburban environment, the advent of a free market obsessed with the automobile, but increasingly in less popular as people realize the advantages of knowledge spillovers that accompany urban living, but leaving the public largely on the hook, subsidizing your living standard through freeway repair. You could take note of the aesthetic blight of many of those suburban areas, often the result of the allure to build new development (often in-spite of real demand) leaving previously developed areas to decay, and further entrenching the need for suburban subsidization. Lastly, you could marvel at the wood utility pole that is a flimsy necessity of suburban living, provided and maintained by a monopoly firm, that was the culprit in your loss of power. In a well planed city, with buried utilities, you never would have lost power to start with!

Ritwik writes:

"Prometheus,it is said, brought fire to service of mankind. Electricity we owe to Faraday." - W L Bragg.

I read this about 10 years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since as what the pinnacle of individual human achievement might look like.

Mark Bahner writes:

"You get pretty good at using candles and so on, and my house has held enough heat that it stayed above freezing inside the whole time."

I'm in NC, and lost power for ~3 days due to an ice storm. When the temperature got below the mid-50s, I thought the place was almost unlivable. It was something psychological about knowing that a house should not be so cold one needs to wear a sweater and long pants.

And I've lost power for ~6 hours at the peak of the summer. The temperature got above 85, and that was basically unlivable too. I could never live in NC without A/C.

"The biggest loss I experienced is that I can't read in the evening: once it's dark outside, you might as well go to sleep."

I had LED flashlights that I probably used for more than 12 hours, without losing light. That's pretty amazing, compared to the old incandescent flashlight bulbs.

Jim Rose writes:

My retired in-laws in the rural Philippines moved from their village having no sealed road access and no phones to cable TV access outside their door all inside ten years.

When I was in Japan in 1995, each generation was head and shoulders taller than the last. The 2010 generation of Japanese are the first to have obesity issues.

David R. Henderson writes:

Great line!
@Mark Bahner,
We normally keep our house at 62. It was unusually cold out that day--low 50's--and so the temperature inside fell--to 61. So not too bad.
Jim Rose,
Great story about Philippines.

Ken B writes:

@John B: Woof is correct. Woof is an older version of the word.

For those who care, the woof or weft are the cross fibres, the ones pulled by the shuttle, and the warp is the lengthwise thread, tensioned on the loom.

Floccina writes:

I love electricity but my power was out for 8 days a few years back, it was not too bad. I did have electricity at work though so I could charge my cell phone and enjoy the air conditioning. (I live in Florida).

Bob Robertson writes:

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Allan Walstad writes:

For cryin' out loud, get an emergency generator. Especially easy if you have gas heat--you get one that runs on natural gas, comes on automatically if the power goes out, powers up essential circuits. Have it professionally installed and serviced. Gas is unlikely to go out at same time as electricity, barring a major disaster.

Mark writes:

Thanks, from someone who works in an electric companies pricing department! I often contemplate the massive consumer surplus we all get from electricity but its nice to know someone else does too.

@Tom West -- Even if a dam as large a Hoover went down we'd be fine from an electrical perspective. I'd be more worried about the water (loss of storage and giant wall of water headed down river)

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