The Toxic Bubble of Technical Debt Threatening America

Climate change will soon expose a crippling problem embedded in the nation’s infrastructure. In fire-ravaged California, it already has.

The wind-driven Kincade Fire burns near the town of Healdsburg, California.
The wind-driven Kincade Fire burns near the town of Healdsburg, California. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

In Northern California, the fires have come again, sending hundreds of thousands fleeing by mandate. They’ve been aided by a historic wind event that a forecaster told me was “off the charts,” with offshore winds showing up as six standard deviations away from normal in National Weather Service models. On Sunday, the wind gusted to 100 miles an hour on a mountaintop near the Kincade Fire. It was like a dry hurricane, and the satellite images showed the fire pushing and expanding in response. The fire might keep growing for days more, maybe even a week.

The Pacific Gas and Electric Company, better known as PG&E, has a well-documented history of neglecting the maintenance of its equipment, and as with last year’s deadly Camp Fire, early reports suggest that the company’s lines could have started the Kincade Fire too. Even so, hundreds of thousands of residents have had their power shut off to try to prevent fires from starting.

PG&E makes for an easy villain, or “a steaming pile of terrible management and debt.” The Wall Street Journal reported that the company paid out executives and shareholders while foregoing important systemic upgrades. (The Journal’s editorial board, however, blamed Sacramento’s policies of supporting solar installations, which could have pulled the focus away from grid maintenance.)

And sure, let accountability fall on PG&E, the California Public Utilities Commission, and whomever else. The problem is far, far deeper though, and it extends way beyond the local situation.

A kind of toxic debt is embedded in much of the infrastructure that America built during the 20th century. For decades, corporate executives, as well as city, county, state, and federal officials, not to mention voters, have decided against doing the routine maintenance and deeper upgrades to ensure that electrical systems, roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure can function properly under a range of conditions. Kicking the can down the road like this is often seen as the profit-maximizing or politically expedient option. But it’s really borrowing against the future, without putting that debt on the books.

In software development, engineers have long noted that taking the easy way out of coding problems builds up what they call “technical debt,” as the tech journalist Quinn Norton has written.

Like other kinds of debt, this debt compounds if you don’t deal with it, and it can distort the true cost of decisions. If you ignore it, the status quo looks cheaper than it is. At least until the off-the-books debt comes to light.

PG&E’s balance sheets are now fully on view, thanks to the company’s massive liabilities from recent fires, which have landed it in bankruptcy court. Pressed by new climatic conditions, PG&E’s system has entered a new era. Utility officials have admitted that large-scale power shutoffs—during which tens or hundreds of thousands of people lose power for days—will be a regular feature of fall life for a decade. Seeing as the company is in bankruptcy, it will probably keep asking to raise rates. So it’s likely that PG&E customers will be living with higher rates, rolling blackouts, and the possibility of power lines starting new fires. And that’s the optimistic scenario, which assumes that the company can actually scrape together enough money to upgrade its system. No matter what decisions anyone makes now, everyone hooked up to the grid in Northern California is likely going to receive worse service even as we all collectively pay more to harden the system against fire. This is what runaway technical debt looks like.

Almost everywhere you look in the built environment, toxic technical-debt bubbles are growing and growing and growing. This is true of privately maintained systems such as PG&E’s and publicly maintained systems such as that of Chicago’s Department of Water Management. It’s extremely true of roads: Soon, perhaps 50 percent of Bay Area roads will be in some state of disrepair, not to mention the deeper work that must occur to secure the roadbeds, not just the asphalt on top.

Then there are the sewers and the wastewater plants. Stormwater drains. Levees. And just regular old drinking water. Per capita federal funding for water infrastructure has fallen precipitously since the 1970s. Cities are forced to make impossible decisions between funding different services. And even when they do have the money they need, officials make bad or corrupt decisions. So, water systems in the United States have built up a $1 trillion technical debt, which must be paid over the next 25 years. The problem is particularly acute in the Great Lakes states. One investigation, by American Public Media, found that from 2007 to 2018 Chicago residents’ water bills tripled, and Cleveland residents’ doubled. In Detroit, a city with a median income of less than $27,000, the average family paid $1,151 for water. At these rates, poor residents are far more likely to have their water shut off, and the systems still aren’t keeping up with the maintenance they need. Runaway technical debt makes it nearly impossible to pay the “interest,” which is just keeping the system running, let alone to start paying down the principal or start new capital projects.

All told, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it will cost $3.6 trillion to get Americans back to an acceptable level of technical debt in our infrastructure.

Of course, it’s been saying that for many years. The number is so big as to be almost laughable. It’s 2.4 times the amount Donald Trump’s tax cuts are to add to the American budget deficit over the next 10 years, according to the Washington Examiner.

Faced with this unfathomable reality, most people have tended to think of the problem as a failing of their local government and utilities—even in places (such as California) that have laws in place restricting property taxes and thereby preventing governments from reckoning with the technical debt. Or maybe they’ve thought of it as an imaginary kind of debt, like what the federal government owes to creditors, or what you owe to your ancestors.

Weirdly, life goes on. As the firestorm raged, it was a beautiful, clear weekend in Oakland. There were costume parties. People undoubtedly went as global warming, climate change, Gaia. Then, Sunday night into Monday morning, another (smaller) fire broke out, pouring smoke into the inner Bay Area. Out came the other kind of masks people had stored last year, maybe even next to the Halloween decorations. But really, there’s no way to deal with climate change alone, no matter how many HEPA filters and P95 masks you buy.

Climate change is calling in the debt on America’s infrastructure. The blackouts are already costing Californians billions of dollars. The status quo has been revealed to be expensive, as it will be elsewhere. When the true costs are calculated, more radical solutions will start to seem practical, even obvious—which is good, because we need them.