West Will Move East as South Moves North

New York is absorbed with “Puffy” Combs and the beauteous

Jennifer Lopez, and Washington, D.C., with Hugh (“I Never Tell My Relatives

Anything”) Rodham, but two stories that will affect us even more deeply are

unfolding in the Outer World.

The California energy crisis mostly elicits in New Yorkers

envious mockery: Air-condition that ,

you golden people. But it has important intellectual and political

ramifications. California’s obsessions, from cults to health foods to

tax-cutting, have a way of rolling back east. The state that went Republican in

nine postwar elections, but became so Democratic in the 1990’s that Bob Dole

and the two Bushes hardly bothered to campaign there, might tip again, if the

previously invulnerable Democratic Governor Gray Davis can’t handle things

better than he has been doing.

California’s electricity was deregulated in 1996, but how

thoroughly was this done? The wholesale market-power generation-was

deregulated, but the retail market-prices to consumers-was not. That is like

giving a double amputee only one false leg, and this, not rising natural-gas

prices, is the explanation of the Golden State’s brown- and blackouts. Free

markets never guarantee low prices, but they do guard against all but momentary

shortages. Rising prices are the flail of waste; they throttle demand, which

means there will be enough supply.

But can demand for something as basic as electricity be cut

back? Will Californians be able to keep their homes and their widgets running?

We in the Northeast know the answer to that question, because rising

natural-gas prices affect the cost of home heating. When that happens, we do

cut back. The New York Times a while ago published a

weeper about a couple in Iowa who built a retirement dream house with cathedral

ceilings and big plate-glass windows, but now have to move into something

smaller because the live-in barn costs too much to heat. I’ve been to Iowa in

the winter (caucus time), and whoever decided to build with cathedral ceilings

and plate glass was thinking of someplace else. If higher prices are

politically unacceptable, California could target its price decontrol, in

effect subsidizing ordinary consumers by making only the big boys pay more. One

economist at Berkeley estimated that if the 30 largest power users in the state

paid market rates, and thus had to trim their demand, the lights would go back

on.

Across-the-board price controls mask the ebb and flow of

demand, and remove the best incentive for finding more energy or devising new

sources of it. Al Gore might desire a world of frozen energy exploitation, but

if that’s what Governor Davis wants he should be made to say so. What he’s

saying now is that utilities are evil, and power should go to the people under

the state’s regulatory guidance, as in old post-office murals with buff farmers

and foundrymen, sweating under the pylons of the future. If he can persuade

Californians there is such a thing as a free volt, we will be hearing a lot

more of him, and of such issues, in 2004.

South of California (but moving north all the time) is

Mexico, where President Bush made his first foreign trip to meet with President

Vicente Fox. High on their agenda was immigration.

Both sides seem to agree that there must be a reformed

guest-worker program for the millions of Mexicans who come here to work. This

has long been a pattern in American agriculture, and not just in the Southwest.

Drive through the apple orchards upstate and note the Mexican restaurants here

and there. Has Ulster County developed a cosmopolitan palate? No; farmers no

longer have 10- and 12-kid families, and poor Americans, white and black, will

not do low-paying stoop work. Farmers might do better to forego such employees,

since mechanization will increase harvests and lower prices over the long run.

But for now, America wants the cheap labor, while Mexico wants the

remittances-$6 billion to $8 billion a year, according to one estimate, which

strikes me as low.

But Mexico also wants permanently to export as many of its

poor as it can. President Fox, who wounded the haggard establishment that ruled

Mexico for decades, has ambitious hopes for development, but he naturally wants

to develop as few poor people as possible. There is also an ethnic and cultural

angle, since the poorest and most troubled provinces of Mexico are populated by

Indians on whom Roman Catholicism and the Spanish language lie like a veneer.

Better for Mr. Fox if these people go to the gringos who, with all their

racism, have a better record of coping with alien minorities than Mexico does.

President Fox accordingly wants a guest-worker program that

will stream into legal residency, as well as an amnesty for workers who are

already here illegally. This is not exactly what President Bush has in mind. He

likes to say that while other people look south and see problems, he looks

south and sees opportunities and potential. The phrase functions for him as a

charm, relieving him of the responsibility of thought. But does even he want so

many opportunities of the South to move here?

Guest workers differ from volts, however much economists

equate them, because the former become citizens and vote, if allowed to do so.

There is no problem with that in the abstract in a nation not built on blood.

But a nation built on ideas and sentiments (“attached to the same principles of

government, very similar in their manners and customs,” as John Jay put it in The Federalist Papers ) must guard

against taking in new citizens faster than ideas and sentiments can be learned.

This is a bigger issue than electricity. I recently attended

a meeting of historians where there was much talk of the meta-story of blacks

in America. It is one of the central American stories, touching a multitude of

white Americans from Thomas Jefferson to Eminem. I tried to suggest that it

will be ceding more and more of our mental space to another story: the question

of who gets the Spanish Empire and its people. Spain? Mexico? Us? The people

themselves? This has been a preoccupation of Americans at least since the

Louisiana Purchase. Elián González was the latest installment; there will be many,

many more to come.

West Will Move East as South Moves North