Texas Outages And Outrageous Bills Show Conservative Policies Only 'Work' If Nothing Bad Ever Happens

File:FEMA - 46049 - Snow covers the Denton, TX area.jpg ...

Over the last week, in Texas, citizens reported $16,000 electricity bills, power company executives bragged about hitting "the jackpot," and Ted Cruz, of all people, called on state and local regulators to do something.

When only two years ago he was out there bragging about what a great job they had done without regulations.

Who would have thought an energy policy devised by George W. Bush and Ken Lay would have gone so wrong? Except anyone who knew who those two men were. Definitely not this guy writing in Texas Monthly in 2002, arguing that Lay's ideas were still good even though he was a criminal whose other ideas were also terrible and very much screwed California.

Along came Enron to argue that deregulation would bring about lower electric rates. Companies that spent lavishly on politics or entertainment would find themselves unable to compete with rivals that were lean and mean. Deregulation would also open the field to new power producers—in particular, industries along the Houston Ship Channel, which have long wanted to generate their own electricity (using steam that would otherwise escape into the air) and sell the excess on the open market. The industrial plants would make more money and become more competitive, which is good for them, and the power companies wouldn't have to build expensive new generating plants that drive up rates, which is good for us. All this sounded so good that the Texas Legislature embraced deregulation in 1999. It will take full effect in 2005.

Enron saw an opportunity to make money: Markets need traders to work, and Enron was the biggest trader. But as we all know, the market for electricity didn't work in California. Does this mean that Texas should abandon its commitment to deregulation? I hope not. We should go ahead, avoiding California's mistakes. The basic argument for deregulation is sound. Just because Enron was its chief proponent doesn't mean the argument was wrong. Shoot the messenger, but spare the message.

The state had been warned for over a decade that its whole energy system would be screwed if it ever got really cold, but state legislators felt safe assuming that would never actually happen.

For all their talk about "personal responsibility," practically all conservative policies are a gamble. To the extent they work for anyone, they only "work" if nothing truly horrible or unfair ever happens to them and if they never have any emergencies.

To support conservative policies on the social safety net, you have to assume nothing will ever happen to you that would require you to need to use it. To support conservative healthcare policies, you have to assume you will never get sick and that if you do, your private health insurance company that you've paid money into for years won't tell you to go fuck yourself (which they do, a lot). To support conservative law enforcement and justice system policies, you have to assume you will always be treated well by the police, never accused of a crime you did not commit or over-punished for one you did. To support conservative labor policies, you have to assume you will never be fired for a bad reason or discriminated against, that your boss would pay you, personally, more without a union than with, that you are being paid fairly for your labor and always will be. To support conservative policies on sex education, you have to assume your kids will be perfect angels who diligently save themselves for marriage. To support conservative policies on reproductive rights, you have to assume that neither you, nor anyone you love, will ever need an abortion. To support conservative policies on the environment and deregulation, you have to bet you will be dead before the bad shit kicks in and that you will be the one to benefit from a "buy now, pay later" approach.

Sure! Some of these things may be a good bet if you're a white, cisgender, heterosexual Christian man who is relatively well off, but shit still happens. Like weather.

That doesn't mean the people in Texas deserve this — saying that is obviously gross and horrible. That's cruel and unusual punishment, and we're not supposed to do that. People don't deserve to freeze to death for being wrong, and of course, millions of Texans have not voted for this. In fact, the idea that people "deserve" bad things to happen to them because of their moral failings is another part of the problem here — the idea that people don't need to prepare for bad shit because bad shit won't happen to them so long as they are good, morally upright, hardworking citizens, which is obviously not true. That's just superstition.

Some of the power companies in Texas, eager to escape criticism, are now graciously trying to figure out how to let people whose electricity bills have been in the thousands set up a payment plan and pay them back over the next ten years.


Q - Is CPSE going to provide payment relief to customers?
A: We understand that it would be unacceptable to have customers bear the cost on their monthly bill, so we are working diligently to find ways to spread those costs to 10 years or longer to make it more affordable.

To be clear, some of the power companies in the Texas market jacked up their prices not because of any increased cost to them to supply that power, but because so few people were able to even get power in their homes that they decided to make those people pay a whole lot more for it. It's a supply-and-demand increase, not a cost-based one. It would be like if you were dying of thirst and I charged you $1,000 for a glass of water and then said "Well, I'm not a total dick, you can pay me back in installments!" (Hit that last link for a fuller explanation of how exactly Texas's bizarre, unregulated power plans work.)

This is exactly how the "free market" works. It isn't a bug, it's a feature, it's the Ayn Rand dream, and it's one that can cause some pretty serious problems when you're dealing with things people actually need to survive.

[Texas Monthly]

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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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