Monthly Archives: February 2021

A Cold Day In Hell

A cold day in hell? It was more like a week. Of course, I am talking about the devasting snow, ice, and freezing temperatures that hit most of Texas in mid-February. On Thursday, February 11, the precursor to disaster occurred when an icy freeway led to a 133-car pile-up on I-35W, leaving at least six persons dead and 65 others injured. Within hours of the crash, 26 fire department vehicles, 80 police cars, and 13 ambulances came to the scene. The cold then went from bad to worse. The temperature dipped below freezing in the afternoon of Saturday, February 13, and remained there until midday Friday, February 19. We reached the “low of the lows” temperature of three degrees on Tuesday, February 16, freezing our water everywhere, as this photo from The Dallas Morning News attests:

As if the frigid cold wasn’t terrible enough, Texas turned into a third-world country. Most of the state experienced power outages (affecting over 40 million persons), some for hours at a time and some for days. Temperatures inside some homes dipped into the forties. Pipes froze, and some exploded, flooding homes that were already forming icicles from indoor ceiling fans. Municipalities issued boil water notices, and bottled water and foodstuffs on grocery store shelves disappeared faster than toilet paper during a pandemic.

Inventive Texans tried almost anything to stay (or get) warm. In the dark, families huddled around gas fireplaces and gas stoves. Some built fires using any wood they could find, including furniture. We brought charcoal grills inside to cook on and to help warm us. It is little wonder that hospitals treated more than 300 carbon monoxide poisoning cases during the cold week in hell. And when all else failed, people layered-up their clothing and smothered themselves in blankets. And through it all, electricity rates soared in Texas’s deregulated system, with some consumers facing bills well over five thousand dollars (and at least one topping $17,000) for a week’s worth of unreliable electricity.

It all reminded me of this scene from the disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow:[i] 

People are genetically wired for survival, not selflessness. We are motivated by self-interest, greed, power, and self-preservation, and we act accordingly—until we don’t. When we witness gut-wrenching tragedy, severe unfairness, or even just bad luck, we forget our predispositions and come together to help, comfort, and support. And a week in the cold without power and water brought out the best in many of us.

Many people with hearts the size of Texas looked after those around them. They opened their homes as temporary living quarters, turned off broken water mains, provided needed transportation, shared meals, water, and clothing, and cleaned out destroyed drywall and other debris left from broken pipes. Nonprofits and churches, working together, sheltered the homeless and established warming centers for those without heat. And many opened their checkbooks to help. George Fuller, the mayor of my hometown, McKinney, Texas, personally delivered hot water to a newborn’s mother so she could make formula. “I boiled water and put it in a thermos and brought it to her. It was no big deal,” Fuller said. It was one of many house calls the mayor made. He helped deliver blankets, water, and food to McKinney residents with frozen pipes. And he returned with more hot water for the newborn.

It wasn’t just Texans. A New Jersey plumber and his brother-in-law apprentice loaded his truck with supplies and drove over two thousand miles to Houston to repair broken pipes. After ten days, he is still there and will be until everyone has running water again. What does he charge for his services? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. He sees his work as part of his calling to help those in need.

The film, The Impossible,[ii] tells the story of a family vacationing in Thailand in 2004, separated by a tsunami. Like those big-hearted Texans (and at least one New Jersey plumber), Thai villagers reached out to help a visitor they don’t even know:

My wife and I were fortunate; we never lost power or water, although, with insurance claims projected to surpass $19 billion, I see a premium increase or two in our future. Some of my adult children and their families were not so lucky. They experienced constant power outages and, in one case, a main water line burst (fortunately before it reached their house). To those that helped them and others around the country, I give, as Maria did (played by Naomi Watts in The Impossible), a heartfelt thank you.

But the week in cold hell brought out the worst in others, including some of our politicians. Senator Cruz took an ill-timed trip to Cancun, and Tim Boyd, the mayor of Colorado City, Texas, posted this, in part, on Facebook:

“No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this! Sink or swim, it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service, owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a handout. If you don’t have electricity, you step up and come up with a game plan to keep your family warm and safe. If you have no water you deal with it and think outside the box to survive and supply your family with water. If you are sitting at home in the cold because you have no power and are sitting there waiting for someone to come rescue you [it’s] because your lazy[ness] is [the] direct result of your raising. Only the strong will survive and the weak will parish [sic]!”

Senator Cruz soon apologized for his trip, and Mayor Boyd has since resigned.

But Boyd’s post raises an issue all Texans must now face. What is (or should be) the government’s role in our lives? If it is not to ensure the steady supply of water and electricity, especially since we pay for these services, I am unsure what is. But to what extent?  

Governor Abbott began by playing the blame game. He first pointed the finger at ERCOT (the manager of Texas’s power grid), even though it has almost no enforcement power over electric power generators. Then it was the renewable energy sources of wind and solar (even though solar generation increased during the week). And then gas wells and pipeline operators took their turn (about two-thirds of the wells or pipelines supplying power to electric generators froze up). In truth, there is plenty of blame to go around, including Texas’s Public Utilities Commission, which up until now, has had few fingers pointed at them.

Our typical response to these failures is, “There ought to be a law.” Perhaps that is the right response, but a law to do what? Most critical issues are more complicated than we like to believe. And Texas’s cold week in hell is no exception.

Texas has prided itself on its lack of government intrusion into our lives and businesses. Free markets, with the right incentives, will motivate companies and consumers to do the right thing. Or so we thought. We experienced similar, once-in-a-decade storms in 1989 and 2011 (although the recent storm was far worse). After 2011, the Texas legislature investigated what went wrong and issued guidelines on fixing it—primarily winterizing power generation facilities. But those guidelines were voluntary. The legislature thought power generators would be financially motivated to winterize their facilities (you can’t make money if you aren’t generating power). But few, if any, did so. I suspect the generators determined it was more cost-effective to save the cost of winterizing and risk losing a few days of revenue once every ten years. Did they guess wrong? It doesn’t look like it. For example, the parent company of TXU (Texas’s largest power provider) stated the one-time financial hit it will take from the recent storm could be as high as $900 million—no small sum. But compare that to its profits of $626 million in 2020 and $928 million in 2019.

But even if the power generators had winterized their equipment, I am not convinced that would have solved the problem because so many natural gas wells and pipelines failed, denying generators the energy needed to run their plants. And the incentives for oil and gas producers seemed to work the opposite way. The natural gas supplier’s inability to meet the demand caused spot prices to spike to over $1000 per BTU from under $5 before the storm. Or, as one local oil and gas company described it: it was “like hitting the jackpot.” And most oil and gas companies have hundreds, if not thousands, of wells, so if a few froze up, there were plenty more that did not and could take advantage of the price spike. Do we now have to add another law requiring power generators and oil and gas operators to winterize their facilities? Perhaps that is the right answer. And what about the electricity marketers who are now issuing outrageous bills to their customers? Is there a law out there for them as well? And what role do consumers play? Texas residents have enjoyed energy prices significantly below those charged in other states, and many believe that is the result of deregulation. If the Texas legislature requires power generators to weatherize their facilities, consumers will ultimately pay for it. Should they be able to say they want to keep their lower bills and risk losing power a few days every ten years? But don’t forget, at least 80 persons have died now due to hypothermia, carbon monoxide poisoning, and other storm-related causes. I have no doubt the families affected by those deaths would prefer slightly higher utility bills.

I do not profess to have all the answers. I only wish to point out the complexities involved in every critical issue we face as a society. And quick reactions often bring unintended consequences. I hope our politicians take a thoughtful approach to this issue and don’t just react in the hopes they appear to the public to be doing something.

In closing, as I watched Texas’s power and water problems become politicized, I thought of this uplifting speech by President Whitmore (played by Bill Pullman) in the movie Independence Day:[iii]

I hope our government and business leaders can put away their petty differences and respond to this latest crisis, not by pointing fingers, but with thoughtful solutions after considering all of their ramifications to everyone.  

In the meantime, we have plenty of extra blankets if anyone needs one.     

[i] The Day After Tomorrow

  • Production Companies: Twentieth Fox, Centropolis Entertainment, and Lions Gate Films
  • Director: Roland Emmerich
  • Screenwriter: Roland Emmerich
  • Starring: Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Emmy Rossum
  • Release date: May 28, 2004

[ii] The Impossible:

  • Production Companies: Mediaset España, Summit Entertainment, and Apaches Entertainment
  • Director: J. A. Bayona
  • Screenwriters: Sergio G. Sánchez (based on the story by Mária Belón)
  • Starring: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, and Tom Holland
  • Release date: January 4, 20123

[iii] Independence Day:

  • Production Companies: Twentieth Fox and Centropolis Entertainment
  • Director: Roland Emmerich
  • Screenwriters: Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
  • Starring: Will Smith, Bull Pullman, and Jeff Goldblum
  • Release date: July 3, 1996

Using the Express Pass Through LIfe

Part of my family and some friends recently took a trip to Disney World and Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida. In total, there were 17 of us, ranging in ages from five to over 65. Despite our varying ages, we had a terrific time, and the excursion reminded me of two important life lessons. First, as ABBA would sing, “Money, money, money; it’s a rich man’s world.” And second, success is often dependent upon who you know.

You don’t have to be a genius to know that having money makes your life easier. I experience that every day I get in my car. North Texas is replete with toll roads. I read once that Collin County residents (where I live), on average, pay more in road tolls than anyone else in the nation. Over the last ten years, it seems every freeway in North Texas underwent construction to add express lanes, which you can only access if you are willing to pay the required toll. Can we still call them freeways? And the amount of the necessary toll depends on the amount of traffic. The more traffic there is, the higher the toll. So, as a driver, you are left with a choice: you can sit in heavy traffic and hope your road rage doesn’t take over, or you can pay the hefty toll, often reaching six dollars a pop. In short, if time is money, on North Texas roads, you need money to save time.

While most viewers consider the film Titanic[i] to be a love story, I see it also as a tragic example of the difference between the rich and the rest of us. The ship required the strict segregation of passengers by class, with the poorest relegated to its lowest bowels. Jack (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) is a poor artist in third class. When he saves Rose (played by Kate Winslet), a young woman in first-class, from a suicide attempt, Rose invites Jack to join her for dinner in first class the next night. Here is that dinner scene: 

Of course, the story ends in tragedy, as the once-thought unsinkable ship hits an iceberg. Jack dies while rescuing Rose. But just as tragic, only the first-class passengers are allowed in the lifeboats; third-class passengers are locked in their quarters below deck.

Money has become so important that some people are willing to go to extremes—even murder—to get a piece of the wealth pie. In Knives Out,[ii] a wealthy novelist leaves his entire estate to his caretaker rather than his family. Watch the family’s reaction when they hear the news: 

What do these movie scenes have to do with a trip to Orlando? At Universal Studios, we felt like the first-class passengers on the Titanic (at least before it sank!). A regular adult ticket to the park costs $165 for a single day. And if you want an express pass, too, that costs you an extra hundred bucks. Two hundred and sixty-five dollars for a single day’s entertainment per person is a hefty amount. A family of four, then, could end up paying over a thousand dollars. And that doesn’t include food, drinks or souvenirs. But we soon realized the express pass was the only way to go. Even with the park at only 35 percent capacity, you could wait almost an hour before you reached the front of the line for some rides. But with the express pass, you got to skip the line, so your hour wait turned into only several minutes. While the express passes made our trip much more enjoyable, I felt sorry for those who couldn’t afford one. But not that sad—for the fewer holders of express passes, the sooner we got on the rides. Having more economic resources than most at Universal Studios sure made our trip more comfortable and enjoyable.

I learned at a young age the importance of who you know. As I looked for a part-time job during my first year of college, I walked across the street to talk to my neighbor. He happened to be the Sr. Vice President of the Salt Lake City branch of the Federal Reserve Bank. I asked him if there were any part-time jobs there. My timing was perfect; a place in the mailroom would become available in two weeks. He then told me to go to the bank and fill out an application. I went the next morning.

I told the HR director I was looking for a job there. He then handed me a one-page application that I completed and returned to him. He then said there were no positions available at that time, but he would keep my application on file if something became available. I replied that my neighbor—his boss—had sent me. His attitude immediately changed. He ripped up the one-page application, replaced it with a four-page application, and asked me when I could start. I was the same person with the same experience and qualifications before and after I mentioned my neighbor, but saying he sent me made all the difference.

Speaking of mailrooms, in The Secret of My Success,[iii] Brantley (played by Michael J. Fox) starts work in the mailroom for a Wall Street investment banking firm. But he has greater ambitions than that.  He then has this encounter with the wife of the head of the company:  

Although the boss’s wife is willing to use her influence to help Brantley succeed at the firm, he wants to earn it. But in the end, Brantley realizes he can’t do it without help. He uses the boss’s wife to introduce him to investors who will help Brantley takeover the investment banking firm. Sometimes, it’s all about who you know.

Disney World did not allow the use of fast passes while we were there, so we needed a different way to make it to the front of the ride lines. We took full advantage of who we knew. One of the children of the friends who came with us has a disability, which allowed them to get a disability pass that would permit them to go to the front of every line. And since my family was traveling with their group, Disney made the disability pass applicable to us, too. So, all 17 of us moved to the front of every ride every time. As I said, it’s sometimes all about who you know.

A trip to Disney World and Universal Studios are trivial examples of these two rules of life. But they apply in most situations. So, my advice to young people beginning adulthood? Find a career that will provide you a comfortable lifestyle (and permit you to drive in express lanes and buy express passes), and associate with people that will help you get ahead. That, along with hard work and a little luck, is my secret to success.

[i] Titanic:

  • Production Companies: Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, and Lightstorm Entertainment
  • Director: James Cameron
  • Screenwriter: James Cameron
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Billy Zane
  • Release date: December 19, 1997

[ii] Knives Out:

  • Production Companies: Lionsgate, Media Rights Capital (MRC), and T-Street
  • Director: Rian Johnson
  • Screenwriter: Rian Johnson
  • Starring: Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, and Ana de Armas
  • Release date: November 27, 2019

[iii] The Secret of My Success:

  • Production Companies: Rastar Pictures and Universal Pictures
  • Director: Herbert Ross
  • Screenwriters: Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr.
  • Starring: Michael J. Fox, Helen Slater, and Richard Jordan
  • Release date: April 10, 1987