"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 2 January 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Utility Players


O Brother, Where Art Thou? is the most recent Hollywood film to feature the Tennessee Valley Authority as a narrative driver, but it is not the first. The last time the massive Federal agency really shook up the big screen was in Elia Kazan's 1960 Wild River, with Montgomery Clift as a TVA official assigned to convince various yokels that abandoning their homes to eminent domain would be a wise and civic-spirited act. Not surprisingly for a film released when confidence in liberal-minded, consensus-driven, Red-fighting Big Government was at its historic high water mark, Wild River concludes with the young Fed's happy vindication. The TVA in the Coen brothers' new (and recommended) O Brother is both crucial and tangential: The movie's heroes are driven to dig up a million-dollar treasure buried on a property that the Authority is planning shortly to flood under "nine hectares of water." The important connection here may not be the relative dearth of TVA-related items in our popular culture so much as the fact that in both cases "America's largest public power company" is associated with destruction of personal property.

This attitude of mixed appreciation for the Authority's role in creating the modern South has a long pedigree. Power utilities, let's face it, are not the first word in glamour: To be a TVA hawk is to be immersed perpetually in back issues of Modern Power System and Public Utilities Fortnightly. Of less immediate but greater historical significance is the TVA's very real history of multiracial, pan-social dislocation. Hillbilly and sharecropper, tenant and petty landholder, all were uprooted in the government's assault on electricity. The Tennessee Valley Authority's first construction program "inundated 610,000 acres of land," says Martha E. Munzer in her decidedly pro-TVA history Valley of Vision. Even David E. Lilienthal, the TVA's second chairman and founding board member, acknowledged "14,725 farm families" forced to pull up stakes to make way for dams and hydroelectric projects. In his memoir (titled, with straight-faced, coercive pride, TVA: Democracy On the March), Lilienthal describes how TVA agents brought the fruits of modernity to the benighted folks of the Smokies:

[B]efore the waters have risen, trained men and women of the vicinage...examine the farms that may be for sale, so that families moved from the reservoir may have disinterested and expert advice, if they ask for it, on values and locations. The expert counsel of technicians and neighbor farmers is available to those who must move; that change provides a chance for the farmer to improve his agricultural practices. Thousands of families have obtained such guidance on a great variety of matters ... The new methods of farming they have followed have shown how a better living could be made from the uplands than older methods had provided on the river-bottom farms from which they had moved.

I don't care how long you've lived on this godforsaken knoll. Who's the government specialist here? But what has been most continually irksome about the TVA (which, we should reiterate, is not some Depression-era memory but a still-functioning organization providing power and light to a vibrant and growing section of the United States) is a history of functioning in exactly the monopolistic, anti-competitive, anti-choice manner you'd expect from an organization that is, in the words of Franklin Roosevelt, "clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility and initiative of a private enterprise." As a symbol of why you shouldn't let the government run things, the TVA — whose debt is larger than the total value of its assets, and whose hostility to consumer choice surfaced most recently when it fought to keep the town of Bristol, Virginia from "leaving" its fold — has always provided plenty of ammunition to its detractors. It must have been some latent hostility toward the Authority that prompted Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Gleiberman to impale O Brother, Where Art Thou? at the top of his Worst of 2000 list.

But recent events suggest the TVA may have been getting a bad rap all along. Right now the state of California (and soon, possibly, the rest of the nation) is getting a lesson in the hard-knocks world of energy mismanagement. Low-income families, electricity-hungry dotcoms, and anybody on an iron lung — all are expected to suffer in the crunch. And on two points, government, private enterprise and concerned citizens like Sunshine State spoiler Ralph Nader (aptly described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "appearing subdued and slightly disoriented" at a meeting last week) all agree. First, nobody knows exactly what's causing the crisis. And second, whatever the reason is, it must have something to do with our old nemesis deregulation.

Like all the best public-policy terms, from Corporate Greed to Working Families, Deregulation has become a word drained of any actual meaning. It's worth noting that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and Southern California Edison, the bankrupt two stooges in the California energy crisis, still have to petition the government for permission to raise customer rates, and that the original point of this deregulation was to break the power of evil corporations, and provide Californians with a choice of energy providers. But now that it's become clear that providing heat and electricity to the country's most populous state and the world's sixth-largest economy is actually a complicated business, we should ask whether there can ever be such a thing as choice in utilities. Do you really believe that "West 79th Street has been Liberated from the cable monopoly," as promised in those ads at the bottom of the New York Times front page? Despite the illusion of energy choice, the single-utility system is an unappealable fact of life. It's a good bet at least a few Californians believe PG&E itself is a government agency.

And they may be more right than we think. Right now the solution to the energy crisis is boiling down to patriotic appeals to the end user: Turn off that desk fan! Don't leave your computer in sleep mode! Take the bus to Safeway! So far nobody has noted that Careless Matches Aid the Axis. But the real reason private and public utilities become indistinguishable is that utilities are by nature a monopolizing force. J.P. Morgan's famous hostility to competition is generally believed to have saved the American railroad system, and it was the originator of massive service on a massive scale whose view of consumer choice excluded any color that wasn't black.

It's surprising that no failing dotcom executive has thought to blame the Great Web Wipeout on California's energy crisis. New Economy seers have occasionally toyed with the idea that portals or search engines were the online equivalents of utilities, but the model of a gas and electric company has never fit well with the DIY, entrepreneurial spirit of the web. That is, until you actually want to connect to the web. Scaring up a reliable internet service provider could make anybody miss the personalized service and commitment to excellence of the phone company.

And what the hell, we're reading this article by candlelight; we might as well end it on an anecdote. A mere three years ago, the San Francisco Bay Area, reviled around the world as the heart of the New Economy, boasted fairly vigorous competition in ISP service, with internet users free to select from providers Sirius, Slip Net, Best and others whose names have faded into history. What these companies lacked in reliability was at least partly compensated by the emotional release of threatening some crumb-covered customer service rep on Townsend Street with the prospect of taking your business elsewhere. The inexorable logic of economies of scale has since removed this option, with several of the local ISPs being absorbed into a Denver company with the Orwellian name "First World Communications." Since this agglomeration, customers have been brutalized by authentication failures and router outages, most recently in a denial of service that lasted from December 18 until a few days after Christmas. Customers calling to bellyache were assigned a number and nothing else — no estimated time for repairs, no offer of a rebate on the ol' monthly bill, nothing but the High Hat we thought only the government was allowed to give us. Everywhere else in the country, of course, ISP options are even more limited. America Online has always been a utility waiting to happen; its acquisition of Time Warner may provide future Gleibermans a larger forum from which to kick the Coen brothers, but it won't make customers stop thinking of AOL as something you get with the heat and the water.

Inside every scrappy startup company there's a utility fighting to get out. Online porn, cable TV, phone service, all these necessities of life feel as if they should be delivered by sullen, faceless, barely competent organizations. The California energy crisis may in the end be less the revenge of the Old Economy than a reminder that the New Economy never got all that far from its Cold War, Big Government roots. The future promises not only hard economic times, but a kind of regression to the mean, in which choice, competition and entrepreneurship are safely tucked back into the closet, and entities beyond the imaginings of mere mortals provide us with slovenly work, sporadic service, enough surliness to power a hundred keggers at a thousand Teamsters' locals, and a whopping bill at the end of each month. If all that sounds too discouraging, just sing a few verses from the "TVA Song" of Ms. Jean Thomas:

Oh, see them boys a-comin',
Their Government they trust;
Just hear their hammers ringing,
They'll build that dam or bust.

Oh, things looked blue and lonely
Until this came along;
Now hear the crew a-singin'
And listen to their song.

"The Government employs us,
Short hours and certain pay;
Oh things are up and comin'
God bless the TVA."


courtesy of Magua


pictures Terry Colon