Our crumbling infrastructure--and sense

The physical substrate of the world we live in can be astonishingly fragile. For example, Boston's water supply was recently contaminated because of the sudden collapse of a pipe in the distribution system.  My city, Cambridge, escaped, because it has its own water treatment plant.

Now, the contamination was really fairly minor. You could shower, wash, etc. And even if you drank it, it would probably just make you a little sick, unless you have a compromised immune system. In much of the world, this would have been perfectly good water.

But it came out of a clear blue sky. One pipe (actually, a collar connecting two 10-ft pipes) ruptured, and an entire metropolitan area had water problems. And a federal emergency was declared, which is, frankly, kind of embarrassing.  A plumbing problem, even a big plumbing problem does not make us a disaster area.

And people were accused of price gouging when they sold...bottled water.  People reported stores that sold bottle water above some "fair" price.  Economists, of course, are all over this one.  But, for heaven's sake, it wasn't like they were withholding insulin from diabetics, or something. There was plenty of water pouring out of every tap. A few drops of bleach, or a boil, and you could have as much drinkable water as you wanted. 

Almost no one really believes in the free market. They just believe in cheap stuff. Fortunately, that's what the market usually provides. When it doesn't, people want to whack the delicate machinery of the market with a big monkey wrench to get it working again.

Infrastructure isn't only physical. It's behavioral too. If it's poorly maintained, you can get a catastrophic failure.  We'll need to be prepared for more disasters of both kinds.