altdailylogoinvThis is where I'm (gradually) reposting the columns I wrote for the late, great AltDaily.

I want to say thanks to Jesse Scaccia and Hannah Serrano, the creators of AltDaily for providing me with this platform.

Bad Energy: How Dominion Power & other Big Corporate Profiteers Crush Consumers with Impunity

This time around, I want to discuss consumer rights vs. the rights of those who seek profit without limits, healthy competition or public scrutiny, and why the rights of profiteers always seem to dominate.

For example, there’s this story, in which our old friends at Dominion Power continue to promote their plan to string a high-voltage power line over a historic section of the James River.

Truthfully, I don’t think I’m as concerned with the aesthetics of Dominion’s proposal as those who so passionately oppose it. What I am opposed to is Dominion’s ongoing attempts to force a project on the people who do oppose it through extortion, intimidation and coercion.

Dominion has less-than-zero credibility when it comes to serving the public’s interest. They are an utterly imperialistic monopoly that throws money around like confetti in order to exert power and influence.
Their success in getting our state government to suspend any scrutiny of their business practices will remain a thorn in my side as long as the policy exists, and I will never ever forgive the politicians who granted them this pass. This was a sellout by our elected officials of the highest magnitude. In almost every single review of their rate structure leading up to such reviews going dark for the next several years, Dominion has been caught grossly overcharging its customers.

So now they say “trust us,” and expect consumers to just say OK? That has to be the very definition of hubris. But when it came to our elected officials – the very people who are supposed to be looking out for us – they just rolled over like puppies getting their bellies rubbed.

Now, as Dominion tries to shove the Skiffles Creek transmission line down everyone’s throats, they say this is the only way to prevent blackouts on the Peninsula – home to NASA Langley, the Jefferson Labs, Hampton University’s Proton Therapy Lab, Newport News Shipbuilding, and three major military installations.

Here’s what I don’t buy: Dominion says that running this transmission line under the river instead of over it isn’t feasible because it would cost “billions” more.

Really? Even the notoriously unfair Elizabeth River Tunnels project, which includes a new two lane vehicular tunnel under the river, refurbishing three other two lane vehicular tunnels, and building a one mile or so highway extension is only valued at $2.1 billion. Is Dominion trying to claim that running one conduit pipe large enough to carry one big cable under the James is even comparable?

So here’s what I propose: let’s ask Dominion to provide us with the most accurate cost estimate they can so we can see for ourselves just how unfeasible this is. Then based on this, tell us how much one option vs. the other option will add to our bills, and let us – their customers decide.
But wait! There’s more!

Let’s also ask an independent third party who has no skin in the game to provide such an estimate and see how they measure up. Then we can see just how Dominion’s proclamations hold up in the real world. It wouldn’t even need to be a spot on estimate – just a reasonable range based on current industry costs and conditions.

I’d also like to see this type of scrutiny become much more widespread. For example, one story that illustrates how disconnected from reality profiteering has become is the one about how a guy (who can only be described as a jism stain on humanity) bought the rights to a drug and promptly raised the price somewhere in the range of 5,000%.

Even in the face of popular outrage, this guy defended his decision, while pure ideological advocates of profiteering applauded him for his business savvy.

This only scratches the surface of how pharmaceutical companies financially rape consumers for whom their drugs can literally mean the difference between life and death.

So, what if someone could conduct a detailed breakdown of how much these drugs actually cost to produce. Then, separately, make a fair objective estimate of the cost of the research that led to their development. Consumers could then start to get a clear picture of how much pure profit and administrative overage (a lot of it in the form of egregiously high executive compensation) is represented in relationship to their actual costs.

Or how about applying this idea to the health care industry in general (why do administrative costs for health care represent 30-40% of a for-profit provider’s income, but only 2% for Medicare?)

Here’s another: Why is the cost of broadband, and to a lesser extent, cable service, so much lower in the rest of the industrialized world? The answer’s pretty simple: Competition. In most of Hampton Roads, Cox enjoys an absolute monopoly on providing broadband service. This is the case with broadband providers in almost all municipalities – if broadband is available at all.

I love the story behind Chattanooga Gig. If you haven’t heard about this, you should.

The city of Chattanooga, TN decided they wanted to make gigabit Internet service available in order to attract high-tech businesses. When they approached Comcast (the provider who had a monopoly on broadband service in that city) about this, Comcast told them that they might reluctantly make it available, but at a cost of about $250 per customer.

So Chattanooga’s municipal government said “screw that,” and funded and built their own fiber system. They now provide gigabit Internet service to their residents and businesses for about $70 per month, with no subsidies I might add.

Maybe the difference isn’t all profit, but if not, what constitutes the extreme contrast in cost, and is it documentable?

I wrote a column many years ago about Wilson, N.C. building out their own broadband system, called Greenlight (and now also running at gigabit speeds) when they couldn’t even find a commercial provider willing to do so. Ask residents in Wilson what they think of this service.

In both cases, commercial interests went ballistic and tried everything they could to get the state-level governments – including through their favorite type of legal graft in the form of political donations and lobbying money – to prohibit municipalities form owning or proliferating their own broadband networks. Fortunately, the FCC has stayed above the politics, and has issued rulings pre-empting local laws that stifle broadband competition.

Those municipally-developed systems are now among the most robust, dependable and fairly priced in the country.

This brings me in a sense to what this column is really about. Ever since the 1980s, when unfettered profiteering, jihadist elimination of competition and limitless accumulation of wealth came back into vogue, consumers have lost almost all ability to scrutinize what’s fair and what’s not in terms of business practices. Government can’t be trusted to protect us anymore as our elected officials are now pretty much bought and paid for by the one-percenters (see Citizen’s United). Sadly, even academia has become suspect because of the massive influxes of money from the one-percenters, as well as corporations.

In my mind, this is something which journalists have to spearhead. I realize that commercial media faces intense financial pressures, but there’s still some great investigative reporting going on. If you never have, you owe it to yourself to visit the website for ProPublica. For several years now, they’ve been doing jaw-dropping work in terms of investigative journalism. My respect for them knows no bounds, and if it didn’t require relocating, I’d beg them for a job.

The main reason they can engage is such scrutiny is because they have absolutely no dependence on largesse from the business world or the one-percenters to execute their work. They’re an independently funded non-profit.

However, they regularly team up with commercial media to enhance their investigative reach. For example, they’re currently in the midst of this powerfully insightful project with the Virginian Pilot in which they’re exploring the legacy of Agent Orange (brought to you by the fine folks at Monsanto and Dow Chemical–unrelated documentary clip below).

But the kind of work they do isn’t being emulated at state and local levels, and it needs to be.

Considering the amount of money Dominion pumps into the Pilot’s coffers with their never-ending series of full page ads telling us what a great company they are and how much they care about us – I’m just not sure how reasonable it is to expect the paper to do more than they have (which is quite a bit). However, I also think that the Pilot has a pretty good record of resisting advertiser pressure, and should pursue Dominion’s behavior to the gates of hell. Let the chips fall where they may.

So, to the decision makers there, please look into Dominion’s claims about the cost of the underwater alternative – maybe by identifying a civil engineer willing to review them – and report back to us with the truth.

The bottom line is the bottom line. I’m not opposed to profit per se, but I will never sign onto the mantra of contemporary robber barons who advocate that there’s no such thing as making too much money – particularly when healthy competition is practically nonexistent.

Capitalism without competition is just renegade profiteering at the expense of consumers – pure and simple. If there’s no competition to curb predatory business practices and excerpt downward pressure on prices, public oversight and some degree of control is the least thing that should be taking place on the public’s behalf.

Of course, as always, I have to point out that consumers can exert control of these practices through the ballot box if they choose to do so. It only takes willingness and motivation.