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Sept. 2003

SELLING POWER FOR PROFIT

Deregulation and Greed, Not Human Error Are the Real Causes of this Summer’s Blackout.

by Alexander Swartwout

 

This author in particular had heard a weather report a few days before the weekend of the late black-out which called for temperatures above ninety degrees Fahrenheit, which were to be the first such sultry days of an otherwise cool year, and he decided to vacate the city, half-seriously thinking there would be a power failure; for there is, whether the wider world knows it or not, a blackout in New York City absolutely every summer, when the weather gets particularly hot. So I am afraid I cannot serve as a useful correspondent on the historic outage just passed, as I was enjoying the temperate evenings and the stable alternating current in the mountains of the Mid-Atlantic.

But I feel qualified still to comment on the masochistic reflex of the Congress in the aftermath. Indeed, with the lights off in the Northeast, I pondered the whole affair and actually decided this might be the death-knell of the conservative government’s industry-coddling, which had already somehow survived Enron, Vice President Dick Cheney’s criminal corporate favoritism, and sundry other crimes against decency. Now de-regulation and its concurrent plutocratic nepotism had eroded the national infrastructure badly enough that the precious East had suffered its effects (as opposed to the disposable land of California, whose mass-blackouts of years past have already faded into anecdote).

But as a confused public awaits an explanation that they can understand (and might even expect a solution to relieve this newly-seeded anxiety about the dependability of their televisions and microwave ovens), the negligent Congress and the hostile Administration have instead stooped to obfuscation, and now have spun the blackout into their political favor. Recent tripe about ‘human error’ and ‘excessive operator fatigue’ means that the blame has been shifted off of the aging, replaceable industry, and the frayed cables of the American power-grid shall be allowed to rot away without the costly intervention of union repairmen. In the capital, the formerly-dead Bush Energy Policy, famed for its disregard of the Alaskan tundra, has resurfaced in Congress as the savior of the bemoaned power-grid. With a new rider or two suggesting that electrical deregulation has not yet gone far enough, and that the energy industry is still too hamstrung by environmental and economic restraints, the Policy is back, and widely favored by the incumbent powers. (It is a minor miracle that the issue of drilling for fuel in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge, which was with us before Mr. Bush ever achieved his office, and was reviled by the nation then, is still being debated. The vastly more popular notion of national health care did not enjoy such a shelf-life when it was being juggled with too-little dexterity by Mrs. Clinton. In four years, does anybody think ravaging the permafrost has become a better idea?)

The only—only— truth which has emerged from the electrical debacle is that unregulated industry will skimp on the frills in favor of the bottom line, every time. We learned the same lesson from Enron, but the nation was still too freshly emerged from the boom years to truly think ill of Businessmen. And we could even learn the same lesson from the airline industry, deregulated in the 1970s; ask any old coot about a thing called the Jet Age, and he will go into reveries about a time when government oversight was not an albatross, but a guarantee of low prices, top-notch service, and universal access.

It should be the subject of a most grave national referendum when an industry is released from government regulation, because the public ought to decide directly if that industry is integral to the continuity of their citizenship. Is electricity thus? I think so, for its disruption is also a disruption in an American’s freedom to work, to pursue happiness, to express himself, and, Luddite or not, to live, in the modern era. To hand these fundamental liberties to private enterprise is as unconstitutional as forcing welfare recipients to listen to Christian sermons in their government-funded soup-kitchens. The Energy Policy that would further release industrialists from any kind of civic responsibility is likewise unconstitutional. Mr. Bush, by seizing on the dilapidation of the American public infrastructure, and essentially blaming the public for it (half a century of public electricity will surely require a few more decades of privatization to remedy, says Double-yoo), has reached new heights of disdain for the peasantry. Anything that has been in the public realm for any amount of time is soiled in the Golden Boy’s eyes—library books stink of common hands, the public pools are full of the filth of the people, public schools are decomposing, disgusting hives of dirt and humanity, and the power stations are coated with the oily film of civic concern. Pater Bush thinks it best to annihilate them all, and replace them with the shiniest, newest thing that the tycoons can put together at a fair profit. As long as the businessmen stay honest, it will work out for the good of the teeming American proles. At worst, it will pipe some more wealth upward.

By the 1970s, most of the functions of American society were controlled by an enormous governmental bureaucracy, with varying degrees of efficiency—transportation, communication, health and social services, and all the industries of any import were still tightly reined in by a post-antitrust, post-Roosevelt civic goliath. Yet while the liberals were stripping down and indulging themselves in the mud-pens of the hippie Drop-Out, the capitalists were taking control of the political machinery, reviling the thought of even so much socialism in America as was apparent in highway maintenance or mail delivery. And by the 1970s, right under the noses of the negligent, drug-addled Left, Deregulation had become the clarion call of a newly anti-government Government. It was the mid-life crisis of responsible American self-government—pounds must be shed no matter who is sacrificed—and it has not stopped yet.

Cutting costs, ‘liberating’ industry from oversight, striving for efficiency, and ‘encouraging competition’ among those already most bloodthirsty, the new conservative powers began the deregulatory movement that continues to this day, and which is largely responsible for the growth of wealth in America in the past three decades. It is deregulation, also, that is responsible for all that wealth’s concentration among those who were already well-to-do; for no new virgin market ever opens, but the friends of the landlord are always first in line for the best goods.

In the early 1990s, after decades of eroding the public’s expectations of its government, the Deregulators had made leeway enough to actually cut loose such a socially critical industry as the power companies—to the great delight of the growing conglomerates who were poised to take them over and remake their budgets and their business plans. To be fair, the idea among the conservative idealists was that competition would force modernization, and thus improvement in service—that capitalism was the great democratizer. Competition can indeed improve industry, if and only if it is combined with accountability. But the shills did not answer to the body politic. They still don’t; and without government authority threatening their hegemony, they left the ancient equipment in place, and focused on profit, nonchalantly guaranteeing catastrophe, and only hoping that they would live a comfortable long time before their Chapter Eleven closure. Insurance policies with zeroes enough for an astronomer were taken out on nuclear power stations, the money for the premiums a good deal cheaper than paying for technological improvements; the deregulated power industry lives in expectation of its own failure, and has done a good job of making sure that failure won’t cost them a penny of their 401(k) retirement plans. For in the world business there is no personal punishment for failure—the executives of bankrupt companies are very hard to distinguish from solvent ones. Not so with government—we know an office-holder when he is standing next to a nobody: he has at once the rosy glow of power, and the glimmering fear in his eye of the people’s will. (Oh how he craves the solution to that—the answer to the people’s discontent!) But what incentive does a magnate have to perform in the public’s interest? We can see how much by the disregard of our magnate-president for the interest of his public. Perhaps the only thing the electricity barons didn’t count on was that the failure would come, and their allies would still be in office. Now even their failure will be rewarded—with more liberty and less responsibility—if the Bush Plan goes through.

Alexander Swartwout assisted Henry William Brownejohns with the editing of Three Weeks, a newspaper in Queens, New York.

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