One of the ways I try to keep myself relatively calm at work is listening to a radio station on Pandora at work that plays music by Keane , Guster , Finish Ticket , Semisonic and a lot of other bands that I happen to like, mostly music that qualifies as alt-rock to indie pop, either of the jangly accoustic or synth pop variety. Anyway, for reasons I do not understand, Pandora thinks that I happen to be a resident of California, and so they have endless irritating commercials relating to life in California. As I listened to the commercials, taking them as seriously as I take everything else, I was provoked by how incredibility foolish the advertisements sounded, and I wondered if the people who made them actually thought that Californians were foolish enough to buy what these people were selling. At the very least I was not inclined to pay much heed to anything either of those advertisements was saying.
The first advertisement that struck me as irritating was one which extolled the importance of the human hand in turning off electricity and avoiding using appliances and turning up the temperature to uncomfortable levels in one’s houses as a way to come with the annual summer rolling blackouts in the state. Now, for as long as I can remember California has had problems with the availability of electricity, making it a target for Enron, and something that has had life-threatening implications when summer has been particularly hot. There were several levels of irritation present in the commercial. For one, there seemed to be a particularly unpleasant nanny state aspect to a public service announcement glorifying living uncomfortably and going without simply because the state cannot get its act together when it comes to building its infrastructure to provide electricity. This is not an unusual problem, something that happens only in particularly bad years, but rather a relatively “normal” matter, making California’s electricity situation rest somewhere around Thailand in terms of its reliability. These problems, moreover, have been going on for at least fifteen years. You would think that even a state as incompetent as California could, in fifteen years of rolling blackouts and strained power infrastructure, manage to come up with some plan that could give it additional power while simultaneously satisfying the stringent environmental standards within the state, even if that meant solar arrays in Death Valley or near the Salton Sea, or wind farms along the Sierra Nevada or in Santa Catalina or something. But no, there is no hint of new power sources to reduce the problem of there being too many people wanting to do too much, and no hint of any solution except rationing and scarcity. How do the people who run the power grid in the state of California still have jobs?
The second commercial that struck me as particularly irritating was an appeal on the part of a shadowy political organization to preserve California’s stringent laws concerning gasoline, the strictest in the entire United States, in the face of industry-led pressure to water down those regulations. It was not necessarily the desire on the part of the political action committee to preserve California’s law that struck me as irritating. My opinions on matters of regulation are rather complicated–certainly too much so to have their complexity adequately represented by any 30-second commercial. What I did find irritating, though, was the absolutely clueless nature of the commercial when it came to basic matters of business. The advertisement accused gas companies of screwing over Californians when California’s laws require a special and more limited blend of gasoline. That is part of the price of regulations–the harder you make it for something to be sold in your area, the more expensive it is going to be. Have you never looked at a demand curve? This is basic economics. In addition to this, the advertisement adopted a rather hostile populist attitude against the gas companies, accusing them of spewing forth the foul exhaust that turns Southern California into a smoggy miasma. Yet the gas companies themselves do very little of the spewing. Factories that generate power spew a lot of it, and we already know how much Californians need their electricity, and a fair amount is generated by vehicles driven by ordinary Californians, like those who would be voting on the referendum related to the Golden State’s regulations. Understandably, the PAC did not wish to insult voters by blaming them for their own predicament, but the insane commute of coastal Californians, which is only a bit worse than my own, it must be admitted, has a great to do with the air quality problems of California, as does the climate of the state and the absence of cleansing rains. But no, blame the gas companies. Heaven forbid that we should ever blame ourselves, even in part, for the problems that we face.
What do these advertisements have in common? For one, the people doing the advertising are involved in some aspect of politics and think that the people in California are absolutely submoronic in terms of their understanding of economics. For another, the advertisements show a fundamental disconnect in terms of matters of cause and effect and assume a high degree of passivity on the part of the audience, a certain malleability to whatever is being promoted by the advertisement, and an inability on the part of listeners to be actively involved. This is especially problematic when it comes to the lack of electricity. Rather than rationing, someone could decide that they wanted to generate some electricity for themselves. Maybe a neighborhood could decide that rather than turn their air conditioners to 80 degrees or go without appliances until it was 6:00PM, that they could add some solar panels or passive solar energy energy to reduce their use of a power grid that is clearly not able to handle their demand. To be sure, this would involve some sort of expenditure and hassle, but it would at least provide for action that would better the lives of people, rather than simply training them to go without while those responsible for infrastructure dither and act completely incompetently. Even Californians deserve better from their political leaders than that.
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