Thursday, December 8, 2011

Third World America: Copper Thieves Running Rampant in Vallejo, California

image: Vallejo, California, where the greatest opportunity these days is the ability to steal all the copper wiring in sight

If you read any detailed accounts of the history of the countries in sub-Saharan Africa, some common themes emerge. Most were granted independence by the colonial powers in the 1950s and 1960s, and with a few notable exceptions like Botswana have been political baskets cases since then. Putting aside for a moment the evils of imperialism, one thing the European powers did bestow on most of their colonies before giving them up was at least the basics of a modern industrial infrastructure--roads, railroads, electrical power, sewage systems and whatnot. Granted they only did this to make it easier to exploit their colonies' resources, but that doesn't change the fact that they did do it.

I don't point that out to defend imperialism in any way. Rather, what interests me is what became of that modern infrastructure after independence. In many of those countries, as they suffered from one brutish regime after another, it all fell apart. Roads became potholed and sometimes impassible, railroads were dismantled, water and sewer systems became unreliable and electricity intermittent. This is what happens to a society when a greedy and rapacious elite are allowed to steal all of the wealth while the citizens increasingly battle just to survive.

All of that is a long winded introduction to this article that appeared Tuesday in a California newspaper:
Blinking red lights in place of the usual traffic lights? Darkened street lighting on out-of-the-way cul-de-sacs?

Blame it on the copper thieves.

Vallejo city officials have begun to do exactly that.

For the past month, city workers have churned out their own street signs, telling the public where to point the finger when city lighting goes awry.

"Signal lights are non functioning due to copper wire theft," a sign at the temporarily blinking red signals at Wilson and Daniels avenues reads. The sign has been there for several months, since copper thieves cut out the wires under the set of lights there.

Assistant Maintenance Superintendent Mike Schreiner said a "national epidemic" of stealing and selling copper wiring for profit has spiked in Vallejo in the past several months, pushing the city workforce to its limits to keep up with repairs.

Asked how long it will take to fix the lights at the Wilson-Daniels intersection, Schreiner said, "We try to put (the signs) in intersections we know it's going to be a while until we get there. We do prioritize. Daniels and Wilson is not one of our busiest intersections by any means. I know people hate to hear that -- they all are taxpaying citizens with the streetlights, but if (an outage is) near a school and it's Daylight Savings time, you can understand who would get the priority."

There were some 30 light repairs pending just last week, Vallejo Public Works Director David Kleinschmidt said.
Of course, making those repairs costs a lot of money:
Some 77 city lighting fixtures have had their copper wiring stolen since May, and the city has wracked up about a $220,000 bill to replace stolen copper city-wide since January, Schreiner estimated.

For the first time, the Public Works Department will need to approach the Vallejo City Council mid-budget year, seeking to supplement its supply-purchasing account because of all the replacement copper needed, Kleinschmidt said.
The nationwide epidemic of copper theft is perhaps one of the leading indicators of just how desperate people are becoming. It must be some pretty hard and dirty work ripping out a bunch of copper wiring in order to sell it to a scrap dealer for maybe a few hundred bucks. Every once in awhile, of course, someone tries to steal a live wire and gets electrocuted. THAT'S some real desperation.

What it all adds up to is yet another way in which our national infrastructure is slowly deteriorating. Right now, the state and local governments are repairing the damage when the thefts occur. But the day is approaching when they will no longer be able to afford to keep making the repairs. And that will be the day that America begins to physically resemble a third world country...not just in the already-blighted rust belt areas, but everywhere.

Bonus: here is a harrowing little tune about desperation


  1. It's like when the Romans pulled out of northern Europe. Roman structures were cannibalized to build fortresses for the feudal elite during the "Dark Ages."

    When there was no longer the tight, top-down organization and intense energy input for maintenance — roads, water & plumbing systems, and walls fell apart. Learning, baths, hygiene, and medicine largely disappeared or retreated into monasteries here and there. Invaders from the far north overran coastlines. Disease ran through populations.

    Remember the scene from Monty Python's "Life of Brian"? What did the Romans ever do for us?!

  2. Another sign of the times:

  3. @Gail - "For the first time in 25 years, Minnesota farmer Dean Tofteland has missed his deadline to buy seed for next spring's cornand soybean crops.

    "With $200,000 of his money yet to be returned from the accounts of MF Global, his former broker, the 49-year-old farmer has missed a $5,000 discount for early buyers, and is watching friends and neighbors snap up the best varieties of seeds."

    THAT'S not good.

  4. @Patrick - the Monty Python boys were true comic geniuses. :)