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
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.