How righteous those deregulation twits were in touting the benefits of market forces in electricity pricing. Never mind that fixed rates and rates of return are the essence of a public-utility monopoly, which itself is the essence of a stable infrastructure. The laissez fairies wanted to wave their magic wands.
Hey, who turned out the lights?
Nothing in the world makes us happier than the idea of Orange County libertarians freezing in their hot tubs because the rolling blackouts have rolled to Irvine.
But wait. There are no problems; there are only opportunities, and the energy crisis has given these Mickey Mouse freemarketeers a chance to roll back still more regulations-this time the ones protecting the environment from willy-nilly power-plant construction and wanton fossil-fuel exploration, the hallmarks of President Bush's proposed energy policy. With Arab oil selling for $29 per barrel, up from $19, the president has the perfect solution:
Don't ask. Don't cartel.
We must, he says, attain more energy independence, using all means available. And in this goal he has a steadfast ally-go figure-in the electric-utility lobby. The Edison Electric Institute is saturating inside-the-beltway media with a print campaign from Oasis, New York, reminding policymakers why we, as a society, need ready kilowatts.
"Where do they get the energy?" the headline ponders, against a black-and-white shot of a surgeon and his team huddled over a patient.
"It takes more than strong nerves and perseverance to make it in medicine these days," says the body copy. "New technologies require more skill, more training, and more electricity than ever before. And there are even greater challenges ahead.
"But with government and community support, America's power companies can build the generation facilities and transmission lines our nation needs. Together, we can insure that a plentiful electricity supply remains the medical industry's lifeline. Visit us at www.eei.org to learn how American progress depends on power."
Three other ads have essentially the same message, atop images of a small businessman, a farmer and the NYSE trading floor. And, of course, we take their point.
Mainly we're grateful the Edison Electric Institute approached this question from the demand side. We honestly expected vignettes of environmentally responsible coal plant operators giving CPR to a snaildarter or some such balderdash. If the sleazebags at Philip Morris can spend $10 million bragging how they spent $15.95 on Kosovo refugee relief, we genuinely feared what would emerge from the Mr. Burnses of the world.
But, no, lo and behold, these ads are perfectly respectable. While there is undeniably a certain "Our Friend Mr. Electricity" quality to the campaign-i.e., answering a question nobody really is stumped on-there's something to be said for a gentle reminder. True enough, for our farmers, surgeons, small businessmen and Wall Street jackals to continue their crucial endeavors, we do need a ready supply of electrons.
That obviously begs the question of how much electricity is wasted by our society of profligate energy hogs-to say nothing of the environmental issues confronting us. (This isn't a matter of a few caribou. Industrial emissions are turning the atmosphere into a hothouse.) And, by the way, what happens when oil is back down to $19 a barrel?
This campaign wisely avoids the debate. Cleverly employing the phrase of bemused admiration-"Where do they get the energy?"-the ads deftly, winningly belabor the obvious without the obvious seeming terribly belabored.
As to what effect this exercise might have on the president's success, that's anyone's guess. These are complex issues scarcely addressed by four simplistic reminders. What the ads do provide is resonant talking points-read, "political cover"-should decision-makers have to face the public to explain some rash response to crisis.
Because no matter what the tagline says, electricity is not America's power source. Nor Washington. The true power resides in public opinion. And this campaign, unfortunately, will nudge opinion in the deregulation crowd's unilluminated direction.