When the Lights Go Out

There was a lot of noise in the news this past week, so you may be forgiven if you let this little nugget slip past you. From Reuters: “Alabama’s Jefferson County filed for bankruptcy court protection on Wednesday in the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.”

There are three words in there that should never be in the same sentence — biggest, bankruptcy, and history — but there you go. Jefferson County has now followed Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (a state capital, incidentally), Vallejo, California, and Central Falls, Rhode Island, in going recently — and literally — belly up.

First cities then counties, the collapse is upward. People waiting for an economic apocalypse are anxiously watching banks, financial institutions, and national governments, but they are looking in the wrong place — at the local level, the level in which most people live most of their lives, the apocalypse is now.

The consequences will be horrendous, for local governments are the institutions that provide the most basic elements of Western civilized life — police protection, light, sanitation. These governments are too-small to fail. Think about it: If the federal government disappeared tomorrow, it could be days or weeks before the average citizen noticed. But your local garbage collection misses one pick up and damn, the stink sets in right away, don’t it?

These basic services are already wasting away, all across America, right under our noses. The city of Highland Park, Michigan, for example, has gone literally dark. The Associated Press reports: “It wasn’t always this way. But when the debt-ridden community could no longer afford its monthly electric bill, elected officials not only turned off 1,000 streetlights. They had them ripped out — bulbs, poles and all. Now nightfall cloaks most neighborhoods in inky darkness.”

They didn’t just turn off the lights — they ripped them out. Think about that. A society with hope in its heart would leave the infrastructure intact in anticipation of better times to come. A society without hope sees the darkened lamps as an offense, a taunt from better times likely never to return. So they self-vandalize, plucking out the painful reminder.

We are turning out the lights on our own civilization, literally and figuratively ripping up what our ancestors have built. May our children forgive us for letting it come to this.