Juliette Kayyem

Fear the grid

The US must balance fiscal cautionary tales from Greece and India

An Indian man walked past cables and exposed wires at an electricity substation in New Delhi, India, Wednesday.
An Indian man walked past cables and exposed wires at an electricity substation in New Delhi, India, Wednesday.Kevin Frayer/Associated Press

As the United States grapples with competing visions of how to balance its budget and limit expenditures, two words define the philosophy of those who seek to cut government spending without raising taxes: Fear Greece. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has warned that America is heading down Greece’s path of budget crises and even social unrest unless our massive debt is controlled. “Next year, the United States could be like Greece,” Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions has cautioned, alluding to the nation that has so overspent it can no longer pay its bills and may bring the rest of Europe down with it.

If politics is image, then Athens has become the poster child against government spending. Ignoring the differences between the United States and Greece is convenient. But it means that critics of this conservative-inspired debt myopia have no alternate narrative, no Greek tragedy of their own to remind the public that spending is a vital part of reinvigorating a nation, creating jobs, and rebuilding infrastructure. Until now. India’s historic power outage this week, leaving nearly 10 percent of the world’s population in the dark, is as much a cautionary tale about delayed investments as Greece’s is about uncontrolled spending. Two words: Fear India.


Over the course of 48 hours, sequential power failures deprived 670 million Indians of electricity, including in the nation’s capital, New Delhi. In a country that has sought to portray itself as the new-new thing — at the expense of caring for a massive population that lives in abject poverty — the blackouts were a sign in the dark: The consequences of India’s historic failure to modernize its power sector had finally beome evident.

India is dependent on an aging coal-power monopoly for production, a system that is corrupt and inefficient. Distribution lags far behind demographics; much of the country does not have access to any electricity whatsoever. Early suspicion into the cause of the blackout suggests that civil servants beholden to their political bosses steered power towards regions that had already exceeded their quotas, undermining the entire national grid. The blackouts are a national embarrassment for the third-largest Asian economy and a political nightmare for the reformist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.


India is not the United States, obviously, and such a debilitating power outage throughout this country is impossible to imagine — but more blackouts of the sort that struck the Northeast in 2003 are quite foreseeable. We’re not India, but we’re not doing all we should to update a vastly outmoded grid system.

India’s woes should strike a warning for modern nations to invest in themselves and in the networks and infrastructure that unite their citizens. It’s important to be a competent nation, able to serve the needs of citizens. Competence projects power as much as any new military jet or tall skyscraper. It means that the lights go on, trains run on time, and a capital city — whether it is New Delhi or Washington, which suffered its own debilitating blackout last month — continues to function.

In “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Katherine Boo describes in heartbreaking detail life in one of Mumbai’s many slums. It shows that India is a single nation of dependent stories. The slums are a “stretch where new India and old India collided and made new India late.” The line is prescient. When the power went out in India this week, there was no buy-out for the rich.


Americans should not be scared into believing that Greece is our destiny any more than they should be taxed to avoid India’s infrastructure deficiencies. The lessons from Greece and India are two ends of an historic seesaw. America’s fiscal success resides in staying in the middle, not teetering toward one extreme so mindlessly that we doom ourselves to being stuck in the sand, joyless and moribund and, should the lights fail, in the dark.

Juliette Kayyem can be reached at jkayyem@globe.com and Twitter