Monday, July 9, 2012


So my house went without power for a week.

This happened partially because there was a very bad storm in my area, and partially because the reigning utility (PEPCO) is way more invested in its shareholders' happiness than its customers' happiness. That's not really opinion.

Now, it may be that private utilities are more responsive, more efficient, or better for society in some way than public utilities are.
I doubt it.  But I know that PEPCO is not the only utility in America, and that many others do a far better job balancing the needs of disparate interests (like shareholders and rate-payers).  I've been running around saying that PEPCO is a one-company argument for public utilities.  And that's mostly anger.  But here is my issue: we don't discuss that.

We don't discuss whether the government or private business does a better job in any particular area of commerce or function.  I think it's a holdover from the cold war.  Possibly the same one that causes Republicans to go labeling anything they don't like "socialist" or "communist" - regardless of whether the given thing/person/idea/policy bears any actual relationship to those political theories.

Sure, Republicans say that private industry does everything better, and that capitalism is the best thing since selling sliced bread.  But we never have the actual argument.  We spend very little time on whether government does anything well or better these days, because under Clinton, Democrats essentially decided to cede that argument.  The DLC took over, the Democrats decided that was the only way we would ever win anything - to pretend we aren't liberal - and that was it.  The Era of Big Government Was Over.  Or at least, the era of talking about it was.

I'll tell you just how bizarre this lack of argument has become: people actually think that a federal health care mandate that puts the onus on individuals - not businesses and only barely on any government - to find and acquire health care insurance in a still-hostile health care insurance market... is a SOCIALIST idea.  That's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard.  Yes, it's the government is making you do something.  But that doesn't make something socialist.  And you know how I know?  Because one of the most conservative justices on the Supreme Court, ever, said so.  He said it was a use of Congress' tax power.  Now, you may not like the health care insurance mandate.  I don't like the mandate (probably for different reasons than you don't like it, if you don't like it).  But it is decidedly NOT socialist.

I'm not suggesting that government does everything better than private industry.  I'm not even suggesting that it does utility work better.  But there are some pretty good arguments for public utilities - that's why we started out with them.  And just because private industry says it can do a good job at something, that doesn't mean that is actually true, or that it should be accepted without critical thought and robust debate.

I mean, if pro-free-market folks are so sure that capitalism fixes everything, shouldn't they WANT to argue that fact?  And if liberals still exist - which I believe they do, though I'm looking for some conclusive proof in the form of a Democratic Party that has the guts to fight for what it actually believes in, instead of striving mightily not to offend the sensibilities of the right - then shouldn't they welcome an actual conversation about what works and what does not work for the country?

One more note, for those who would continually conflate socialism, progressivism, and liberalism: liberalism is what brought you individual rights and the vote.  Progressivism is what brought you the National Parks, Social Security, child labor laws, and the weekend.  Liberalism and progressivism are not statism.  I am not advocating socialism.  I am advocating that people to the left of center actually have the guts to talk about what they think, in an informed, rational way (i.e. not sound-bites, not defensively, not with leveling charges of fascism the way the Right uses socialism and communism... and fascism).  Then I am advocating that people on the right of center do the same thing.

I'm also advocating that PEPCO spend less time trying to gin up its share prices and more time serving its rate-payers.  Or, you know, stop having shareholders, if you can't serve both well.


  1. No doubt - and if the government doesn't do something well, how about helping it do a better job instead of privatizing right away?

    That said, too many Americans are HIGHLY sold on privatization. You pretty much make this point above. How could this insane bend-over-backwards-to-use-the-free-market workaround possibly be construed as LEFTIST? REALLY? Getting things to a point where public services are politically palatable in the US is going to take a long game, with public success stories, private failure stories (plenty of them lately), and effective spin/marketing.



  2. You're absolutely right, it's a long-term problem, and it will take a long-term solution. But right now it feels like the Democrats don't even know they have a problem. That's what scares me :-)