Annual maintenance at Árbol Squirrel reminded me of the Northeast Blackout and Mitt Romney’s Bain layoffs. (More)

“Daddy, why are they cutting down our tree?” my daughter Nancy chittered as she and Michelle watched the men work on Árbol Squirrel.

“They’re not cutting down our tree,” I assured the twins. “They’re trimming some dead branches that could break off and fly around in a storm. It’s safer for us and everyone else, and it keeps our tree healthier too.”

The girls were satisfied and scampered off to play, so I headed for the BPI kitchen for breakfast and then to the mail room to read today’s Campus Chatter. There I found a mention of the 2003 Northeast Blackout that cut off power to an estimated 55 million people in the U.S. and Canada.

The failure started just after 2pm when a sagging power line in northeast Ohio brushed against a tree branch. The short-circuit should have tripped an alarm at the power company, but their equipment failed. Over the next two hours, as technicians in three different companies’ control rooms tried to figure out what was happening without talking enough to each other, continued high power demand and fewer trunk lines available led to higher line temperatures and more sagging lines. By just after 4pm, three more lines had shorted out, setting off a cascading failure that spread across eight U.S. states and much of Ontario.

The blackout’s official death toll was eleven people. A later study in the journal Epidemiology, reported by Reuters in January of this year, pushed that to nearly 100 including deaths from underlying diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory problems. Those deaths were tragic and preventable, but they weren’t murder.

Yet the conservative response to the Priorities USA ad – which ran only on cable news shows and the Internet – telling the story of a man who lost his health insurance and whose wife died from cancer, after he was laid off when Bain Capital’s profit-taking left the steel plant he worked for unable to stay in business. “An ad came out yesterday that basically calls Mitt Romney a murderer,” declares Rick Moran at the right-wing American Thinker.

No, the ad doesn’t call Mitt Romney a murderer. Just as the report on the Northeast Blackout didn’t call the line maintenance workers, control room technicians, or power companies murderers. Yet even media fact-checkers have basically bought into the GOP characterization of the ad.

Like that power line sagging against that tree in northeast Ohio, Bain Capital’s management policies combined with other events to set off a cascading failure. The man lost his job and his insurance, which also provided supplementary coverage for his wife, who worked and still had her own insurance. But then she was injured and lost her job, and his new job didn’t offer spousal coverage. Lacking access to health care, she did not find out she had cancer until it was too late, a tragically common pattern that was statistically documented in a 2009 Institute of Medicine study.

If you believe the Republican argument that the Priorities USA ad is unfair to Mitt Romney, you should also believe Northeast Blackout report was unfair to utility line maintenance workers. If you believe people like Romney should be free to suck profits from vulnerable companies because he was not the sole cause of that woman’s death, you should also believe there’s no reason to trim trees near power lines because one line sagging against one tree was not the sole cause of the blackout and the nearly 100 deaths that resulted.

Sensibly, the Northeast Blackout report called for better tree-trimming along power lines, along with other reforms including better alarm systems and communication in power company control rooms. It’s equally sensible to demand better protection for hard-working Americans, including the health care protection that a Romney spokesperson said might have saved that woman’s life had lived in Massachusetts … where Romney signed a health care law almost identical to the federal law that he says he’ll repeal on “day one, job one.”

If that were to happen, people will die for lack of access to health care. To say that is not to charge that Romney and Republicans in Congress intend to murder those people. It recognizes that they will set off cascading failures that leave too many hard-working families having to choose between groceries and rent and a trip to the doctor … until the trip to the doctor is too late.

I’m glad they trimmed those branches from Árbol Squirrel. It makes my tree and my neighborhood safer. So does the Affordable Care Act, and other sensible laws that protect hard-working American families.

Good day and good nuts.