Thomas Sowell

Now that President George W. Bush and California Governor Gray Davis have had their meeting over the electricity crisis in the golden state, how much closer are they to producing a solution? Not one millimeter closer.

Nor was there any reason to expect that they would be. Each one had to have this meeting, for political purposes. But Bush cannot solve California's electricity crisis from Washington and Governor Davis is busy trying to solve his own problem -- how to avoid blame for the electricity crisis.

You cannot judge how well someone is solving a problem until you know specifically what problem he is trying to solve. You or I might think that the big problem is how to get more electricity into California, for the benefit of its people and its economy. But that only shows that we don't think like politicians.

Just getting more electricity would be easy, if that was all that was involved. Governor Davis himself has estimated that he could end the electricity crisis in 20 minutes, just by eliminating state-imposed price controls on public utilities. Why not do it then? Because he wouldn't be governor again after next year's election. And his chance for national office would be down the tubes as well.

No matter how fast Governor Davis ended the electricity crisis, California voters are not going to forget the blackouts they have already experienced by the time of next year's elections. Moreover, the speed with which the electricity crisis ended would raise the question of why it wasn't done before -- indeed, why there was a crisis in the first place, if getting rid of price controls was all that was needed.

Unfortunately, virtually everything that would be economically effective in getting more electricity for California would be politically suicidal for Governor Davis. And virtually everything that would be politically beneficial to Governor Davis makes it harder to get more electricity for California.

"Price caps" are the magic words politically and they have become a mantra, repeated incessantly by liberal Democrats in California and in Washington. But if President Bush were foolish enough to impose federal price controls on electricity, that would not provide enough additional electricity for California to light one 30-watt bulb for one minute. On the contrary, price controls reduce supply and increase demand, worsening a shortage.

Thomas Sowell

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

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