The Massachusetts Massacre rocked the D.C. establishment. But when it comes to political earthquakes, there’s no place like California. A look back at the Golden State’s electricity crisis, when a cautious governor let the state’s taxpayers bear the financial brunt of deregulation and was later ousted, suggests that last Tuesday’s vote was merely a foreshock of what lies ahead unless President Obama and congressional Democrats step up.
Nine years ago, Wall Street energy traders took advantage of California’s newly deregulated electricity market to do what Wall Street always does. By gaming the system, buying and selling electricity contracts multiple times, sending power out of state and ultimately shutting down their power plants to create blackouts, the speculators drove the price of electricity through the roof, until the state’s utilities collapsed and the California economy seized up. It was a massive windfall for Wall Street.
Although deregulation had been signed into law by Republican Governor Pete Wilson, it didn’t take full effect for several years. By the time deregulation proved to be the disaster myself and other consumer advocates predicted it would be, the Governor of California was Gray Davis, a moderate Democrat who was on the short list of contenders for the Presidency in 2004.
Then the lights went off – in middle of January, when consumption in California is at its lowest of the year. The energy industry said its plants were down for maintenance. The Bush Administration blamed California for not building enough power plants. But anyone not on the industry’s payroll or blinded by worship of the free market could figure out that California was being scammed, big time, by an artificial shortage.
With traffic signals dark and businesses shutting down, we called upon Governor Davis to send in the National Guard, seize control of the power plants, and turn the juice back on.
Davis didn’t know what to do. Deregulation wasn’t his idea, but it melted down on his watch. We later heard that representatives of the California Public Utilities Commission and some of the state’s utility companies had privately urged him to use the power of eminent domain to take over the plants. But Davis declined.
Instead, he brought in Wall Street advisors from firms like the Blackstone Group to guide him. At that point, the state’s utility companies had run out of money to pay for electricity. The energy companies refused to generate any more electricity unless the state of California – the taxpayers – stepped in. The Wall Street rating agencies piled on, threatening to downgrade the state’s credit rating if Sacramento didn’t agree. It was “blackout blackmail,” but Davis’s Wall Street advisors convinced him that it was the only solution, and he capitulated.
California borrowed tens of billions of dollars to pay the energy companies their vastly inflated prices for electricity. Our electricity bills will reflect that debt for another 20 years. Meanwhile, Wall Street firms reaped billions of dollars – from the phony crisis, and from the bonds that were floated to pay for it.
The lights came back on. But California voters never forgot how Gray Davis handled the confrontation between Wall Street and Main Street. And when an action figure from the movies gave them an opportunity, they terminated Davis’s political career.
Similar forces were at work in the Massachusetts election. Bay State voters were simply the first in 2010 to have the opportunity to express their dismay at how Washington has handled the financial crash that Wall Street engineered.
Like Davis, President Obama wasn’t even on the scene when Congress and federal regulators dismantled the Depression era safeguards that protected us against a speculation-driven collapse. But when confronted with an unprecedented crisis, President Obama, like Governor Davis, choked.
Instead of using every measure of his presidential authority to stop the speculation, punish the perpetrators, reform the financial system and relieve struggling Americans, Obama brought in a cadre of Wall Street players whose advice was, not surprisingly, to spend trillions of taxpayer dollars to bail out the banks, credit card companies and hedge funds, and let Wall Street go back to business as usual with barely a slap on the wrist. The hundreds of millions of Americans who didn’t qualify for a federal bailout were left empty-handed.
Like Davis, Obama will have a couple of years to turn this political and personal debacle around.
Putting a cap on the interest rates we pay to borrow our own money from banks and credit card firms would help millions of consumers weather the coming months and get the economy going again. Replacing Geithner, Summers and others who used to work for the industry with a few Nobel Laureates like Joseph Stiglitz who warned of the coming collapse would be good for the White House, now trapped in its own pro-Wall Street bubble. Last week, Obama proposed breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks, which would prevent more reckless speculation and future crash/bailouts. But Americans now wonder if the President will follow his words with deeds, or surrender to the industry lobbyists without a fight, as he did before.
Whether Obama will find the courage that eluded Gray Davis remains to be seen.