California's Power Crisis: the Missing (As Usual) Immigration Dimension
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Scott McConnell writes every other week in Taki's Top Drawer/NY Press

Scott McConnell's NY Press Columns (archive)


February 06, 2001

California's electricity crisis teaches that the most politically popular and expertly vetted deregulation plans can be gravely flawed, and that booming economies can lose their luster in weeks. But its greatest lesson lies in its confirmation of the total victory won by the forces favoring continued high immigration into the United States. Because of that victory, one of the principal causes of the biggest challenge to California's prosperity in a generation has become, for the entire pundit and political class, more or less unmentionable. As a result, trying to follow the debate over the source and solution of California's power ills has become like listening to a group of historians discuss the origins of World War II without reference to Hitler.

The electricity problem is complex: most papers have at most one journalist willing to feign mastery of the intricacies of public utility regulation (not me). But no analyst claims that the basic laws of supply and demand have been rescinded. Because of them, Californians endure rolling blackouts, while rate hikes and the construction of new and environmentally hazardous power plants loom down the road, for the Golden State and the entire American West.

The supply half of the equation must include, of course, the politics of utility deregulation, massive error in estimating the future costs of electricity on the wholesale market, and the influence wielded by California's powerful environmental movement. The latter oppose new construction of nuclear and coal-fired plants, a sensible view given the state's earthquake and smog problems.

The demand for power is driven by people in their sheer numbers. It is not, as one might imagine, pushed upward by any rise in per capita electricity consumption: despite the smorgasbord of electronic gadgets and computers now in common use, and urgent calls for Californians to use less power, greater efficiency has brought individual electricity consumption to a lower level than it was 20 years ago. But the rise in the sheer number of users drives demand upward. The state that numbered 10 million inhabitants in the 1950s now hosts 34 million and is projected to grow to 50 million within a generation. Last year it added 571,000 people, a one-year rate of growth higher than Bangladesh's.

This growth is driven nearly entirely by immigration. While more native-born Americans leave the state than arrive, 2.2 million immigrants entered in the last decade, and they have higher birthrates than the departing American-born.

Yet the role of immigration in the crisis is hardly mentioned. Since the retirement of Governor Pete Wilson and the ascendance of W's Spanish-accented "compassionate conservatism," immigration reform is no longer a subject for polite company. The large-scale influx, both legal and "undocumented," is treated not like the policy choice it is, but as an immutable force of nature, the rising of the sun. California will have to generate power for 50 million souls by the year 2025, though it can't properly supply it to 34 million now.

Immigration's contribution to the population rise has become a cow so sacred that even the environmentalists at the Sierra Club refuse to criticize it. (At least most of them: a substantial dissident faction of the venerable group is trying to put immigration reform back on the club's agenda. It used to be, but was dropped in 1996 as part of a minority outreach program.)

More people had better be a good thing, because if present immigration trends continue there will be a lot more Americans. The Census Bureau's current "middle range" estimate forecasts a U.S. population of 570 million by the end of this century: this estimate assumes both a slowdown in birthrates by 2050 (i.e., that foreign-origin birthrates will move closer to prevailing American norms) and that the current pace of Mexican and Central American immigration is transitory and will diminish.

The "high range" Census Bureau estimate yields a U.S. population of nearly 1.2 billion, roughly that of China, and we'd be growing at a rate of 18 million a year. It would be nice to think that this estimate–in the country many of our grandchildren will inhabit–is a worst-case scenario. In fact it's the middle range estimate that may be sanguine and less realistic.

All of America's problems with pollution, sprawl, overcrowding, water shortages, power shortages and destruction of green space are exacerbated by population growth, and population growth is almost entirely a function of immigration (since American birthrates have stabilized near replacement level). The growth also affects values not easily measured. A larger populace renders each individual citizen more remote from his government, with less potential to influence it. Such drawbacks exist no matter where the immigrants come from–without reference to the troubling correlation of multicultural diversity with limits on freedom of speech.

You would think then that the power crisis would have sparked a new discussion of immigration policy–which was widely debated as recently as the mid-1990s. It has not yet happened. The subject has been driven from op-ed pages and magazines by a determined alliance of free market neoconservatism and minority-sensitive political correctness, together perhaps the most formidable impediment to free debate the American people have ever encountered.

February 06, 2001

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