Power to the People? Hardly.

Industry Has Connections, but We Don't

Once it became clear that we could not blame Canada for the largest blackout in North American history, the politicians started saying no one was to blame. The hapless Bloomberg jabbed a finger at those ordinary people who don't turn off the light when leaving the room and don't want power lines running through their backyards. "We just don't have a lot of extra power," the mayor warned. "So be careful." Governor Pataki kept talking about an "investigation" period. About as muddleheaded as he was on 9-11, President Bush decried the U.S.'s lame electrical grid with a face so straight that you'd never guess he was the person responsible for running the country. A "wake-up call" was what he termed it.

Finally, on Sunday the Bush government set us straight: "Ratepayers, obviously, will pay the bill because they're the ones who benefit," Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said on CBS. "And that's where most of the responsibility ultimately will be assigned." It's our fault; we will pay approximately $50 billion in higher rates.

The mainstream media have been all too cooperative. Once they got through the feel-good stories of helpful neighbors and candlelit stoop parties, they quickly moved on to discussions of failed alarm systems in Ohio and transmission patterns in the Lake Erie loop, suggesting that the outage was just another technological problem, the kind of thing that's bound to happen every now and then, a challenge for the engineers and computer wonks to solve. Pointing fingers or even just being pissed off about it has been depicted as unsportsmanlike and, what's worse, unworthy of true New Yorkers, whose stoicism ought to cover sleeping on the streets or walking five miles in the dark. Thank God, said the reporters, that at least as people trudged home across the Brooklyn Bridge, they didn't have to look back at clouds of smoke from burning towers.

Say watt? Con Ed workers outside their plant at 14th Street and Avenue D on blackout day
photo: Jennifer S. Altman
Say watt? Con Ed workers outside their plant at 14th Street and Avenue D on blackout day

If this attitude holds, it will amount to yet another chapter in the Bush administration's amazing success story of hoodwinking the public, right up there with the disappearing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the tax cut for the rich jump-starting the economy. Because the real blame for this blackout lies not in technical glitches, but in political policies. Once again, as on September 11, New Yorkers have borne the fallout from national politics.

The United States of America is more than capable of providing its citizens with reliable electric power, without requiring that they pay the price of a disastrous blackout every decade or two. Remember that we live in a country that fought and won two world wars, produces more food than any other place on earth, and sent a man to the moon. Do you mean to say we can't provide our citizenry with cheap, reliable electricity? Do Bush and Pataki and Bloomberg really think we are that stupid?

Many countries have nationalized the energy resources and delivery systems that provide their citizens with one of their most indispensable commodities; others tightly regulate these industries, in particular the electric utilities. In the U.S., the electricity industry is mostly privately owned and subject to astonishingly loose regulation: The North American Electric Reliability Council (NERC), a combination of public and private groups that passes for a standard-setting and regulatory body, has no mandatory standards and can't enforce reliability. Everything is voluntary.

And what are the entities whose voluntary cooperation is solicited? They are, of course, private companies, whose main goal is to turn a profit. And the fact is, it is difficult to make huge sums of money for executives and company owners from maintaining or improving electric-transmission systems. There has simply been no economic "incentive" for companies to invest in updating technology. There has also been no legal requirement for them to do so. And so it has not been done.

Enron proved that business can manipulate the electricity market and get away with it. (To date, not one person from Enron is in jail.) And in one form or another, what Enron did will be repeated over and over again. Like drinking water, electricity will become something no one can take for granted, and at the same time, it will cost more—exactly the opposite of what we were supposed to get from the healthy competition brought by an unregulated free market in energy.

None of this should come as a surprise. Bush and his right-wing Republican coalition that runs the nation are determined to cut back to a bare minimum the federal government that holds us all together. In addition to finishing off the New Deal's social welfare system and getting rid of the Department of Education, federal regulation has gotta go.


Mondo Washington, Part 2: How We Lost Control of Our Energy


Additional reporting: Phoebe St John

 
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