Blowing smoke 

Deregulating it all and let God sort it out

There’s plenty enough smoke in Missoula these days without President Bush blowing even more our way—but that’s just what’s happening following last week’s electricity blackout. While spending more than a billion tax dollars a week on the Iraq War that Bush told us was essential to our “national security,” the single largest power failure in this country’s history plunged 50 million people in the dark within seconds. Long before the lights came back on, Bush was calling the incident a “wake up call” to “modernize” our electricity system through deregulation of the grid—with consumers paying billions in additional utility costs to build the new, deregulated lines. To Montanans, more utility deregulation isn’t likely to sound like much of a solution.

Perhaps somewhere, in a parallel universe where Republican theories actually work, there is a place where everything has been privatized and deregulated and functions in perfect harmony and balance to the ultimate benefit of the citizens.

Perhaps, in that parallel Republican universe, the competition to supply electricity for Montanans is so fierce that we now enjoy power almost too cheap to meter, delivered reliably from stable, long-term companies led by conscientious CEOs who actually serve the best interests of their customers and employees.

If there is such a parallel universe, we can only hope that somehow, some day, some way, Bush and his deregulation cheerleaders are mysteriously and permanently transported there to live in the sheer harmony of the world they will have created for themselves.

But in the real world, in this universe, deregulation has been tried and it is not working. In the real world, with real corporate interests and today’s predatory CEOs, when companies “modernize” it usually means they go into bankruptcy or wind up living on government subsidies. Either way, as Montanans know only too well, it is invariably the citizens, not the unscrupulous CEOs, who pick up the tab.

Our Montana experience with the fruits of deregulation is epic, and both the pain and costs are going nowhere but up. But it was arguably deregulation—and the subsequent market manipulation by megacorporations—that landed California in its circus-like recall debacle. Needless to say, California’s budget crisis wasn’t precipitated because their energy was too cheap. In fact, the places that survived the so-called “energy crisis,” like Los Angeles, did so because they relied on publicly-owned utilities for their power supply—not the “free market” manipulators.

The same could be argued for the East Coast, where the deregulation of electric utilities was adopted by a number of states, followed closely by California and Montana. If deregulation was going to work, it has certainly been given plenty of opportunity to do so. Yet the political popularity of the theory as the central theme of the Bush presidency far exceeds its success on the ground.

That Bush would continue to hang onto deregulation as a solution is not unusual for this president. After all, he still thinks we’re going to discover massive stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He also thinks we won the war and are being accepted as liberators, not hated as an occupying force. And maybe we have—in Bush’s parallel universe.

But here on Earth, there are others out there, including Republicans, who are wondering if there might not be a better option than abandoning our country’s future to the backrooms of shadowy corporate entities who are often here today and gone tomorrow.

For instance, the blackout gave alternative, decentralized power supporters a boost. Considering that nine nuclear power plants shut down due to power supply and grid instability, the idea of local power production and distribution from windmills and solar panels doesn’t sound too bad. Sure, a windmill or panel might blow down, but at least it won’t melt down.

The blackout also illustrated just how much energy Americans are using and wasting every day. As the grid comes back up, citizens and companies are being asked to conserve—Canadians asked their companies to consume half as much electricity—and many are finding it not all that hard to do. Which begs the question: Why aren’t we, as a society, focusing more on conserving resources instead of frivolously burning through them?

If you live in the Republican parallel universe—where energy supplies are infinite and global warming doesn’t exist—there’s nothing wrong with using resources and polluting the earth at an ever-faster pace. Eventually, you produce so much more than you need that the resulting surplus drives the prices down.

But that’s in the parallel universe. As Montanans know, we are paying more for energy every day while our world gets hotter and dirtier from the pollution of increased energy production and consumption. The evidence, as they say, is all around us. How many days over 100 degrees this year? How many tinder-dry forests? How many bone-dry rivers?

In the real world, there are real consequences to our glut of production, pollution, and consumption. As many as 5,000 people may have died in France’s heat wave this month. Ironically, that’s more than died in the terrorist attacks on 9-11. Is there some valid reason the relatives of the French heat victims shouldn’t seek out Dick Cheney in his undisclosed location and hold him and his secret Energy Task Force accountable for plotting their destruction through the Republican “burn, baby, burn” energy plan? That won’t happen, of course, but the Bush administration’s steadfast refusal to acknowledge global warming or America’s disproportionate contribution to the problem is creating hatred and disdain for our country.

Which brings us to the obvious: The Bush administration’s priorities are haywire. That billion a week we’re spending in Iraq under the phony excuse of ensuring our nation’s security is getting us nowhere fast. Instead of Bush’s “consumer pays” plan, we should invest those dollars on solid, regulated, reliable, clean, decentralized power and ensure some real “Homeland Security.” What we don’t need is more of Bush’s smoke.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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