Perceptions of power

Powerless: Oh, what a difference a season makes.

When summer began, the sky was falling: energy generators were gouging the state and its people, one major utility fell into bankruptcy and the other teetered on the brink, official predictions called for 21 days of rolling blackouts and there was serious talk of nationalizing some corporate assets.

Now, as summer sets, the power issue has all-but-disappeared, reduced to an arena for political gamesmanship and seemingly well-intentioned (if boring) government initiatives. Even last week’s revival of the issue—with the launching of the Consumer Power and Conservation Financing Authority and developments in the deal to bailout Southern California Edison—registered hardly a blip on Joe Citizen’s radar screen.

What the hell happened?

Well, the basic storyline goes something like this: consumer conservation and cooler summer temperatures nixed the anticipated energy shortfall, while a combination of state power purchases and fear of angry natives wielding public power weapons took the edge off the profiteering.

And that’s all true, but it only tells part of the story. The more telling aspect lies in the fact that the public has a short attention span for complex policy issues, and even when it can manage to pay attention, the public has a deeply ingrained sense of its own powerlessness. So we accept what we’re told, shrug our shoulders and mentally move on.

Because on an intuitive level, the public knows that the Consumer Power and Conservation Financing Authority isn’t really going to “be the balance wheel against the excesses of the market,” as Governor Gray Davis promised before swearing in the authority’s directors.

The only balancing that this wheel will do is to the balance sheets of the power generating companies. And that’s the whole point. The authority will make sure we have enough energy to avoid blackouts, making the public pay for unprofitable peaker plants and conservation programs, while propping up the current system’s massive raid on the public pocketbook.

If a free energy market really worked—that is, if competition really lowered costs and increased supplies, rather than being just a mechanism for increasing profits—then we wouldn’t need a power authority. And if the system doesn’t offer those promised benefits, then why would we leave the current system in place rather than taking aggressive steps to re-regulate?

Why? Because untying the knot that now binds this state is difficult to do at this point and fraught with political peril (oh, how Davis must loathe the notion of facilitating public power and being called a “socialist” in the next election). So instead, Davis gives us power authority boss S. David Freeman riding in to save the day, complete with cowboy hat and folksy charm.

With a relatively small budget for a power generator and little political will to do anything bold, the authority will have little impact on the energy situation. But with some cooperation from the weather and the energy pirates, Davis will have accomplished his main goal: extracting himself from a public policy failure that could have ended his political career.

Another prong: Davis used the power authority swearing-in ceremony as an opportunity to announce that he and Democratic legislative leaders have reached agreement on a modified plan to bail out Edison. That comes after the governor’s original plan was dismissed as a laughable corporate giveaway.

While it’s unclear whether Edison will accept the less-generous offer rather than taking its chances in bankruptcy court, Davis is still trying to shake the “bailout” perception: “We do not do this to please Edison,” Davis said. “We do it because it’s in our best interests.” Of course, when Davis says “our,” he’s not talking about the people of California, but his campaign committee and the business interests that support it.

Meanwhile, the most recent lobbying reports show that Edison has broken into the ranks of the top five lobbyist employers in the state after spending more than $3.1 million to influence official decisions over the last two years.

Funny, we may not have needed to bail them out if they had spent that money paying their bills. Maybe we should just consider the bailout package to be a rebate. You know, some kind of “thanks for giving so many lobbyists jobs here in Sacramento” tax break, that kind of thing.

She’s gone and he’s still here: An alternative theory for why nobody paid attention to the power authority inauguration was the fact that it occurred just as Congressman Gary Condit was going on prime time national television with his shameless “I’m the real victim here” shtick.

Condit should be ousted from office for bad taste if nothing else, followed by a massive insult to our collective intelligence, followed by the fact that he very may well have killed missing intern Chandra Levy.

That last point, the big accusation left unsaid in most of the glut of media coverage of the issue, isn’t that hard to imagine, is it? He says, “I’m breaking it off.” She says, “I’m going to the Post.” He says, “Oh no you’re not,” KAPOWEE, a crime of passion and opportunity. In this post-OJ world, is that really such an implausible act for a powerful man accustomed to getting his way?

OK, OK, he probably didn’t actually kill her, but what are we left to believe after his evasive actions in the wake of her disappearance? Exposed as a liar, an adulterer, a hypocrite and maybe even much worse, it’s time for Condit to be the public servant he pretends to be and resign.

Listen up: Word has it that Capital Public Radio is going to be dropping some of its daytime jazz in favor of more news and informational programming. While Bites digs jazz, the change would be a welcome one considering this city’s dearth of broadcasting to stimulate the mind and improve our sense of community.

It’s shameful how little informational content we hear on the radio in California’s capital, especially compared to San Francisco’s KQED, or even little Nevada City’s KVMR, which plans to devote an entire 17-hours worth of programming to workers’ issues on Labor Day (including a two-hour discussion of the state of the labor movement by local lefty hero U. Utah Phillips).

And next Sunday, September 9, KVMR and Berkeley’s KPFA plan to run live coverage of the big PowerShift Rally at the Capitol, where Global Exchange and other sponsoring groups will call for a public seizure of the power system. Sacramento radio listeners will be lucky if we hear Capital Public Radio’s Mike Montgomery give a 20-second spiel on the rally Monday morning. Embrace change, people!