Don’t feel guilty if you don’t understand Alberta’s shocking electricity prices. You’re not supposed to.
Sales of electricity in Alberta are now managed through what Dilbert calls a “confusopoly.” It’s a system of near-monopoly marketing designed to defy explanation. Its goal is to make it easy for you to sign a bad deal, or to manipulate you into feeling that there’s no point creating a ruckus about the worse deal you’re stuck with. Resistance is futile. Shut up and pay.
You think this is too cynical? Well then, you explain it in a way that makes sense!
All anyone really understands – and I suspect this includes most of the so-called experts who are busy advising us how to lock ourselves into long and expensive contracts with the confusing welter of power resellers out there that phone us at suppertime and prowl our neighbourhoods two by two – is that the price of power is going up, up, up.
How much, you wonder? Well, $25 a month last month for the “typical” monthly household power bill, and another average $11 this month. And remember, that average includes folks with no kids who sit in the dark calculating their savings on an abacus, so if you’re a householder with children, laundry to do more than once a month and a crappy job to pay for it all, well, you’re hooped!
Now, let me qualify that stuff about no one understanding. The friends of the Alberta government in the private-sector electricity generation and marketing industries, which was kindly “deregulated” (“turned loose,” more like) by Ralph Klein back when he was our market fundamentalist premier, understand perfectly well what’s going on. Someone’s manipulating the market. Or, as one of our local newspapers put it relatively uselessly yesterday, the problem is caused by “unexpected plant shut-downs and strong demand.”
You see, people, that’s what you’re doing when you close down a plant at a time of strong demand: manipulating the market.
“I don’t know why Albertans are willing to put up with this crap,” NDP Leader Brian Mason put it considerably more usefully in the same newspaper report, and it’s not just a good question, it’s a good question for the NDP.
Let me explain. The usual discussions on this topic deal with the wrong questions, such as how Mr. Klein’s deregulation was designed to pay private power suppliers to close down plants that should be kept open and make taxpayers pay to rebuild their private investments, or how the intricacies of a deregulated electricity market affect prices when there are only a limited number of for-profit suppliers.
Whatever Mr. Klein thought he was doing or was actually trying to do, he sold us a bill of goods about how market “deregulation” was going to make everything better because “consumers” would have “choice.” Well, we’ve got choice all right – the trouble is, all our choices are more expensive than what electricity cost in the not-so-bad old days of market regulation.
For those of you old enough to remember how things worked back before the perfection of the almighty market was imposed on us, the regulator guaranteed private players in the un-manipulated market a fair return for their investment and consumers were guaranteed reliable power at a price that was both steady and affordable.
In other words, what the business guys like to call a win-win.
But what’s really important to remember is that while virtually no one in Alberta understands what is going on, practically everyone is mad about it. Businesses, private citizens, seniors thanking God it’s a mild winter – very large numbers of Albertans are furious about this situation, and they blame the Conservatives.
How do I know this, you wonder? Well, a couple of years ago, back when Ed Stelmach was still premier of Alberta, I had the opportunity to sit in on a series of focus groups held all over the province to find out, in part, about what citizens thought about privatization.
The surprise was, no one really wanted to talk about privatization. They wanted to talk about what idiots Mr. Stelmach and the Alberta Conservatives were to deregulate electricity. It didn’t matter if you were talking to right-wing business people in Calgary, trade unionists in Edmonton, small-town residents or farmers, everybody was as mad as hell about this issue.
And that was before prices really started to go crazy.
And remember, while a poll might tell you what people think right now about a particular issue, a well-run focus group will help you understand what people are really thinking about. And an awful lot of Albertans are thinking about electricity.
Now I said it was a good issue for the NDP, and that’s for two reasons. Reason No. 1, Mr. Mason knows what the right answer is, and he’s not afraid to say it out loud: Bring. Back. Regulation.
“Electricity is an essential service people need and it should not be subject to market manipulation,” he told the local press. “I don’t think it’s fair to force ordinary families to become experts on the electricity market and under-stand how to hedge and gamble with their families’ budgets.”
I think an awful of a lot of Albertans agree with this statement, which brings us to Reason No. 2: Every other political party in Alberta is so committed to the market fundamentalist state religion, at whose alter we have bent our knees for 30 years, that not one of them can speak this obvious truth aloud.
Tell me I’m wrong, but how can the Liberals or the Alberta Party advocate a regulated electricity market, let alone the Redford Tories or the Wildrose Party of Danielle Smith? Not one of them dares say it – even if they know in their hearts it’s the only solution that can avert the power catastrophe we face.
But Alberta seniors, contemplating the possibility of freezing to death, if not this year, maybe next year, just might. Ditto small business owners who use their heads, families with kids and all the rest of us form whom electricity is an essential service of the sort we elect governments to ensure we have.
Albertans should also remember the kind of choice we got in electricity the next time they’re offered choice in health insurance!
Mark my words, the Redford Tory strategy on this one is going to be to fly as far as possible under the radar. If Mr. Stelmach or Mr. Klein can be made to wear it, it’ll work for them.
Ditto the Alberta Party and the Liberals, I’ll bet. As for the Wildrosers, they’ll boldly promise us the same thing Mr. Klein did – more deregulation to somehow make things better. If you believe this, I’ve got a leech that will cure everything that ails you!
The only party that’s in a position to offer a solution that will actually work is the NDP. It’s a good thing for them to say out loud. And it’s a good thing for them to keep saying.
Hold Page 1: Stephen Harper treats Edmonton with contempt
Stephen Harper, the Canadian prime minister guy, will be making a house call in Edmonton tomorrow. He’ll be visiting the Boilermaker training facility in the north end, we’re told by the Edmonton Journal in an otherwise virtually information-free report, which nevertheless drips with Conservative contempt for the reliable schmucks who regularly reelect them out here in Wildrose country.
He’s actually in town to ask the labour union movement how Alison Redford got so many of their members to vote for her. Just kidding.
OK, he’s here to keep an eye on Thomas Mulcair, the NDP leadership candidate from Quebec who will also be in Edmonton tomorrow. Just kidding about that too, although Mr. Mulcair really will be here – not that you’ll know about his visit from the media coverage he’s likely to get.
Uh, maybe a union hall’s the only place in town safe from Greenpeacers dropping on strings from the roof? Or maybe he just wants to learn how to weld garden sculptures.
No, the Journal’s 49-word story informs us, if that’s the right word, that it’s none of our damn business: “The event is not open to the public, and the purpose of Harper’s appearance has not been announced.”
Oh, thanks for that, Edmonton Journal! Are you familiar with the term “sources”? Evidently not.
As for Prime Minister Whatsizname, can you imagine him treating voters in Toronto, or anywhere in central Canada, with the same contempt?
My friends, this is truly pathetic. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.