California is flickering like a Christmas tree with a cat chewing on the light cord, and the stench of frying tabby is too much to bear.
Lots of people are involved in the energy crisis and, as the rats scramble for cover, they’re biting each other and trying desperately to blame anyone else. When a fuck up is this big and confusing, it seems beyond belief that one person could be responsible for it all.
Yet, I have found that one man: Steve Peace.
How could one lonesome Democratic state senator from San Diego be the source of the land’s woe? He wrote legislation in 1996 deregulating the electric biz and spent two years bragging. Up until July, Steve-o was churning out about two press releases a month – each progressively more frantic as San Diego’s sweltering citizens were gouged by high prices. His last output blamed colleagues for amending his legislation and spat out the blatant lie that utilities didn’t want deregulation (in fact, they helped to draft the bill). He also said that, under no circumstances, should California return its utilities to public control. There haven’t been any more public statements since July.
Basically, Peace is a weasel caught in a trap, trying frantically to gnaw off his own leg before his outraged constituents catch up with him and pound him into the dirt with huckleberry staves – poor fucker.
In civilian life, Peace is the head bean counter for a movie company that has produced such epics as “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes.” As a state senator, he’s known as a policy wonk. “Wonk” is an ugly term for a beautiful thing: people who immerse themselves in an issue before writing legislation. Wonks are in short supply. People vote for the guys and gals who promise to reduce crime, cut taxes, save puppies and ban cigarette billboards. To an electorate that doesn’t want to think about arcane things like power grids and kilowatts, “wonk” sounds like a term for aborted masturbation.
So there’s Peace up in Sacramento, being a wonk. Let’s assume he had the best of all possible motives. He looks into the power crisis and, lo, none of the puppy-saving legislators he works with have any interest in the minutia of electricity – it’s enough that their tie racks work.
So who will talk to a curious guy like Steve? Pacific Gas and Electric and Southern California Edison, of course. They were knowledgeable, interested and friendly contributors to campaign coffers. They liked their natural monopolies, but would have been happier if there weren’t laws against gouging. So, not so out of nowhere, Steve gets the idea that deregulation is the way to go, provided it includes a safety net for his new friends. Heck, how was Steve to know the utilities were basing their power-usage predications on the assumption that California would stay in a recession for the next 19 years?
Steve’s fellow legislators were thrilled to see someone else writing such long, boring legislation that probably had to get done somehow. The voters sure as hell didn’t care. Their televisions worked and when Claymation advertisements came on the tube late at night to preach the wonders of deregulation in, I shit you not, a Rastafarian accent, none of them paid attention. The economy was taking off, and our computers and coffee pots were running all night long.
Nowadays, however, it would be safer for Grandma to play Russian roulette than go in for a dialysis treatment in the middle of a Stage 3 power alert. Electric bills are high and promise to go higher in order to bail out the power companies that asked for this in the first place.
Gov. Gray Davis is panicking as he watches his presidential dream brown out in a giant political shitstorm. The governor, and everyone else in power, is trying desperately to come up with some solution, or illusion, that will make the hurting stop.
We can be pretty sure about some things. For starters, the utilities will be bailed out and go largely unpunished. All kinds of new power plants will be built quickly and poorly, but before that happens out-of-state corporations like Enron and Dynergy Inc. will get much, much richer. Lastly, we’ll all pay higher bills for a while.
Try and remember this for a few elections.
Brendan Buhler is a Daily Nexus columnist and assistant campus editor. He wakes up in the middle of the night, sweating, worried the power has gone off and his cocktail glasses are no longer chilled.