Thomas Sowell

IT was only a passing news item when the financial information service Standard & Poor's lowered the rating it gave to bonds issued by the state of California. But it has big implications and it also shows the big difference between economics and politics.

At the heart of all this is the electricity crisis in California. With the state's public utility companies being forced by law to sell electricity to the public at lower prices than were paid to buy it, it was only a matter of time before these companies were heading toward bankruptcy. Since somebody has to buy electricity from those who generate it, and the public utilities no longer had either the money or the credit to do so, California's state government has had to step in and buy electricity, or else see the lights go out and the state's whole economy collapse.

Although the state government has not run out of money or had to default on its bonds, financial experts like Standard & Poor's can see big bills, big debts and big taxes just over the horizon. That is why S & P is warning investors that California's state bonds are not as safe as they were. Those who buy these bonds face greater risk of default or delayed payments, which amount to a partial default.

Ironically, this whole predicament arose because political decision-makers did not look ahead, as economic decision-makers are forced to do. It is not rocket science to figure out that no business can buy high and sell low for very long. But it is always politically expedient to impose price controls on business, in order to look like you are protecting consumers.

If you don't understand the economics of price controls, just look at the history of it. Price controls created a gasoline shortage in the United States in the 1970s, food shortages in France in the 1790s, and housing shortages under rent control in cities around the world at various times in between. Why should anyone be surprised that price controls caused a shortage of electricity in California today when price controls have been causing shortages as far back as the days of the Roman Empire?

Yet what is the cry of the hour? A demand for federal price controls to rescue California! In other words, the same short-sighted politics that created an electricity crisis for California can now be followed to create a more widespread shortage of electricity around the country. Politicians know better. They just are not likely to do better. As California's governor Gray Davis said, in one of his rare candid and rational statements, "Believe me, if I wanted to raise rates, I could have solved this problem in 20 minutes."

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and author of The Housing Boom and Bust.

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