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Don't Let Them Turn Out the Lights 

It's time for consumers to take back California

Wednesday, Jan 31 2001
Last week, as I stood in the rain in front of a South of Market barroom awaiting a man called "Pud," I perceived the end of all that is good: of the idea of California, of America, of all hope for redemption in this modern world.

Pud runs a New York Web site called, dedicated to ridiculing failed Internet firms, mostly Californian. Pud, whose real name is Philip Kaplan, announced to his thousands of cultish followers earlier this month that he would be visiting the bar, so fans crammed inside until there was no room. Fifty more stood in the rain waiting an hour for their turn to see Pud.

To me this scene -- once-proud Californians braving cold rain to touch the sleeve of a man devoted to mocking them -- served as a perfect metaphor for how far we have fallen during the last couple months. Our amazing Internet industry has gone down the tubes. Our electricity system has fallen apart. We're the sixth-largest economy in the world, America's promised land, and we're a laughingstock. Monday's newspapers, which quoted our president and vice president gleefully telling Californians to shove it up our collective rear, seemed to confirm this.

"Can't California just go into the Pacific now?" said one of more than 350 FuckedCompany readers who posted comments about Pud's California visit. "All this whining and complaining that there's no juice to run the Jacuzzis and there's no way to heat up Hot Pockets in the microwave -- shut up, you causers-of-your-own misery!"

California's loss of face is tragic for all Americans. The rest of the country revels in our pain, but they know not what they do. The idea of California -- of limitless possibilities, of endless self-invention -- is the idea of all America. When New Jersey yokels sneer at us, they mock the possibility that their lives will ever be more than New Jersey lives. For them, for their children, we must redeem ourselves from this humiliation.

As redemption often arrives in unexpected forms, Californians must look to outsiders' most bitter complaints as we fashion our coming renaissance. If they say we are flaky materialists, then we must embrace and enrich our materialistic side. If they say we're trend-mongers, then we must aggressively court new ideas. If they say we're sanctimonious and arrogant, then we must rise and show them -- all of them living in that fetid sea outside California -- who their masters really are. To do this, we're going to need electricity -- lots of it.

To save our electricity system, our economy, and our dignity, California must tap into its most loathed, feared, and cherished primal life force: consumerism. If nothing else, California's energy crisis has shown that Gray Davis, the utilities, and the state bureaucracy have wound themselves so tightly together that they share the same sinews. It is inconceivable that this beast will propose a solution that is equitable for most citizens. If we are to prevail, the people of California must act in a way that gives them real power: in masses, as consumers. We must stake our own claim, then defend it, just as California pioneers always have.

Sadly, in the debate surrounding California's energy crisis, both sides seek to silence our inner consumer.

The 1996 "deregulation" scheme lobbied into place by PG&E and SoCal Edison positively prohibited true consumer choice. Indeed, one of the energy crisis' most humiliating moments came last week, when the last of the environmentally friendly "green" utility companies that were supposed to have represented "competition" under the new, market-oriented scheme quit the game.

"Due to the recent instability of the California electricity market, we are not offering Green Mountain Energy to California residents at this time," according to a note on the company's Web site. "We believe it is in your best interest to stay with your current electric service provider and do what you can to conserve energy."

The socialize-everything lefties among us, meanwhile, appear on talk shows demanding that the power grid be nationalized, or state-ized, as the case may be. Back-of-the-napkin calculations suggest such a measure would cost $50 billion just to buy plants now in existence. More billions would be required to buy generating potential now in the works, and still more would be required to battle years of "takings" lawsuits, which would, as sure as electricity turns night into day, enrich the out-of-state utilities that have made us buffoons. Presumably we'd obtain the necessary funds by decimating California's general fund, its bond rating, or both. All so we don't have to bother with having to choose. Choice is a burden, they say -- just look at the airlines, with their crazy fares, and the telephone companies, pestering us all the time. People don't really like consumer choice. They just say they do.

I might have believed these people had I not happened to find myself last week inside the cavernous interior of Costco. I don't go there often, and was therefore unprepared for the rush of consumerist energy that filled my chest. Witless, I bought 15 pounds of farm-raised trout, eight pounds of fresh pork loin and an extra-large bottle of Baileys Irish Cream. The millions of pieces of Costco merchandise produced a muted, euphoric version of Tourette's syndrome, which I shared with around 5,000 nameless kin.

This consumerist Force is the shared patrimony of all Californians; we must use it for good. In California individuals communicate with one another through possessions; we hide from one another behind possessions; much of what we see and say and understand has to do, in one way or another, with our choice of what to buy.

The fact that citizens haven't managed to include electricity in this conceptual universe represents a disastrous waste of human potential.

One of the many ways California's consumerist power remains untapped in the world of electricity at a time when it is most needed is illustrated by the market for photovoltaic solar panels. By normal economic logic, Central Valley housing tract developers should be perching panels atop subdivisions so prodigiously they'd be seen from space. Photovoltaic technology has become efficient enough that homeowners can recoup their money within 10 to 15 years, which is a short enough span to make for an effective investment, says an architect friend of mine who specializes in solar buildings. But large-scale housing developers aren't typically willing to add the price of solar cells to the price of a house. They don't figure home buyers will pay for it, and largely they're right. Consumers have been taught not to consider electricity as subject to consumer choice -- even when the right choice could save them thousands of dollars in the long run. If Californians were to unleash their inner rational consumer and install next-generation solar panels on mile after mile of rooftop, the enviro-bashing rednecks in the Bush administration might feel compelled to shut their mouths.

This week, representatives for the owners of around 500 of the Bay Area's largest office buildings are negotiating a huge electricity agreement with Enron Corp. Enron would offer individual contracts of two to three years at a rate pre-negotiated by the Building Owners and Managers Associations (BOMA) of San Francisco, Oakland, the East Bay, and Silicon Valley.

The city and county of San Francisco could just as easily ally itself with a buyer's co-op along the same lines. And if current political winds are any guide, it very well may.

If we were to take California consumer empowerment to its appropriate conclusion, it might also involve democratic politics.

We might tell Gray Davis, his Public Utilities Commission, and his allies in the Legislature that if they ever again mention using the good faith of the people of California to back PG&E debt, we'll end their political careers.

We might force our government to revisit the promise of the original electricity deregulation discussion -- the public one, at least -- in which competition between electricity providers was going to create a facsimile of markets for other consumer goods. We would force them to immediately discontinue the ludicrous policy of making PG&E and SoCal Edison the "default" providers to customers who don't want the hassle of choosing their electricity provider. States such as Pennsylvania invite competing electricity providers to bid for these default customers. An even better choice might be to empower consumers -- make staying with their existing provider an active choice just as changing providers would be. As I've said before, having a plethora of green providers, long-term-contract providers, and providers who offer service based on any combination of consumer tastes, would create a truly competitive market in which retail electricity companies aggressively seek out the best wholesale deals, and wholesale providers become more aggressive in seeking cheap, efficient new sources of electricity.

State legislators were unwilling in 1996 to order a real system of consumer choice -- which would entail a true busting up of the big-three electricity monopolies. Their failure created the worst statewide calamity in California history. Gray Davis ignored this imperative in 2001, denying us the sort of transparent, truly competitive market that would guarantee an end to such power crises. We've got to stop buying what they're selling and go shopping for a better brand.

If we do not do this, we run the risk of allowing our glorious, 150-year project to fail.

The heroic settler migrations of the mid 19th century, the foundation of the state's great public universities that soon followed, Hiram Johnson's great progressive revolution of 1911 and the flowering of California's esoteric religious movements of the 1920s -- all these could come to naught. The promise, under Pat Brown, that our state would have the greatest infrastructure in the world, and the hope, under his son, that original, free thinking would allow California to change the planet's consciousness -- these will become dust. If we don't act, the collapse of our latest stab at redemption -- the dot-com boom -- and the absurd humiliation of not being able to turn our own electricity on, will finally put us exactly where the rednecks and elitists and naysayers always wished we were. We will metaphorically slide into the sea. Our people, our customs, our companies, and our government will remain the deserving brunts of ridicule.

If we do take control of our consumer destiny, well, anything's possible.

Consider the musings of another poster on Pud's site.

"California should raise an army and crush the rest of the godforsaken country. The fucking South? Please. It's a cesspool of inbreds, cigarette butts, and pork rinds. The Midwest? I wanna pull my hair out when I hear that annoying-ass accent. The East Coast? Fuck the East Coast. The East Coast is for people too paranoid and neurotic to move to the West Coast. California will rise up and enslave the rest of you like we should have 30 years ago."

About The Author

Matt Smith


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