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The Com Ed Burden


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To the editors:

I still can't believe serious people are taking seriously questions about how Chicago's new mayor, Richie Daley, is going to resolve his Commonwealth Edison dilemma. The answer is clear: He will resolve it in whichever way best serves his constituency. But who is his constituency, you wonder? The people who own Chicago, of course.

In Com Ed's case, this means its bundle of shareholders, hence its Board of Directors, whose own constituency is the profitability of the corporation and the value-per-share of its stock. (For obvious reasons, Com Ed's Board doesn't have to worry about market share.)

But you catch my meaning: Whether public or private--note that at this level of the power structure, no such distinction obtains--hence, we're talking about state capitalism, wherein the state is an instrument of capital, and politics, or what in the media they call "democracy," reduces to factional struggles among the wealthy--I dare someone to show me any real difference between the Office of the Mayor of Chicago and of the other CEOs around the city!--representatives serve the needs of their constituencies. As Hank De Zutter and Tony Griff's "The Electric Connection" (Dec. 1) outlined, many of the owners-managers of Chicago are "plugged into" Com Ed, and vice-versa. And the only way we puny mortals are going to break the circuit, as David Moberg argued in his accompanying "Power Play," is to raise the costs to the owners-managers of the city of continuing to have everything their way. Short of diminishing their capacity to run the city without interference from ordinary people (the "rabble" whom the "rabble rousers" rouse, as scripture, Leo Burnett, and the Tribune tell us), they don't even know that ordinary people exist. Let alone care.

"Has Com Ed done the best job possible in providing economical power, and is it the best choice for the future?" asked Moberg. He's right: This is the basic question insofar as "natural" monopolies go. "Com Ed's extremely high rates make a prima facie case that it hasn't done such a great job," he correctly answered. Even more to the point: Its extremely high rates, a consequence of its diseconomy of scale, itself a consequence of a managerial policy of treating generating capacity and the nuclear plants it requires not as instruments for serving the consumers' needs but its own, especially as investments, make an indisputable case that Com Ed hasn't even tried to do a mildly good job.

Indeed, Com Ed's gross overcapacity shows that it has failed to serve the social good, the faithful servicing of which alone would justify the extension of its franchise. Its high electric rates are the market's unambiguous expression of a capacity which it cannot but underutilize. Yet the problem isn't so much that Com Ed runs its plants inefficiently--or "immaturely," to use the ridiculous excuse favored by Com Ed and the mainstream media. The problem is that the monopoly enjoyed by Com Ed is dripping with inefficiency, regardless of how well it might in theory learn to manage its plants, once upon a time.

In short: Com Ed stands accused (and convicted, in my opinion) of gross social indifference in discharging the duties of its franchise. Honesty, prudence, efficiency, and economy--they sound nice, but that's about as far as they go. Take a private, for-profit enterprise in the utilities business, confer upon it the prerogatives of monopoly, and you'll always get a sovereign producer--an emperor. Never fails. Never will. After all, it's "not by the removal of covetousness" that worldly kingdoms are made, "but by the addition of impunity." The people of Chicago can no longer afford the burden of Com Ed.

David Peterson

Evergreen Park

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