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Revolutionary California

A man picks up a generator from a Home Depot in Hercules, Calif., Oct. 26. PHOTO: DAVID PAUL MORRIS/BLOOMBERG NEWS

Can 40 million suffer third-world electric reliability without a political upheaval?

California may well be entering a pre-revolutionary situation as the Marxists would call it. Unlike the rolling blackouts of 19 years ago, today’s outages cannot be stopped with a simple act of regulatory courage, which then consisted simply of guaranteeing that suppliers would get paid for power they supplied under long-term contracts.

Back then, a feckless governor dithered. Over 11 months, residents suffered blackouts that in their totality are already exceeded by just one of the intentional outages called in recent weeks to protect utilities from wildfire liabilities.

This week a homeowner told the Los Angeles Times: “They shut off the power and we still had a fire. I don’t understand it.” That’s because less than 10% of fires are caused by power lines. It’s impossible even to know if the intentional outages are doing more harm than good, though the question at least was broached in a state Senate hearing this year. Utilities make the decision. They are understandably focused on minimizing their own financial liability rather than weighing the trade-offs that outages impose on the public.

Last time, a recently re-elected Democratic governor was recalled in a chaotic referendum and eventually replaced by movie action-hero Arnold Schwarzenegger. But with the blackouts long since resolved, Mr. Schwarzenegger went down to a humiliating defeat at the hands of public-sector unions when he promoted ballot measures aimed at union power, overspending and gerrymandering that would have reformed the state’s politics.

There are differences. Last time, affluent urban areas were hit with blackouts too, although utilities also were in a better position to exempt sensitive customers like hospitals and shelters. Californians today see fires on the news. They may believe the blackouts are justified by the emergency. Then again, given the nature of the grid, many are suffering outages without experiencing high winds and fire threats. And the outages are likely to be a recurring feature for years.

Since the defeat of Arnold’s reforms, California has tended to mistake the success of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, whose economic hinterland, talent base and revenue source are the world, for California being well-run.

It’s not. Any such illusion is belied by its homeless and poverty problems, its Nimby-driven housing costs, the black hole of its bullet train, the decampment of families and businesses to Texas, North Carolina and Tennessee.

The immediate crisis will eventually be ameliorated by better weather and by myriad acts of adaptation by utilities, homeowners and communities, but California’s governance culture will remain.

The wildfire crisis is ultimately the product of a state politics controlled by interest groups whose agenda has drifted out of any cognizable relationship with the daily well-being of the state’s average citizen.

Because California accounts for less than 1% of global emissions, nothing it does will make a difference to climate, but its ratepayers shell out billions for wind and solar that might be better spent on fireproofing. A generation of ill-judged environmental activism has all but ended forest management in favor of letting dead trees and underbrush build up because it’s more “natural.” At the same time, residents resist any natural or planned fires that would consume this tinder before it gives rise to conflagrations like those now menacing Los Angeles and San Francisco.

An activist state Supreme Court imposed on utilities responsibility for any wildfires started by their equipment regardless of negligence. At the same time, state policy obliges them to extend their networks to support housing developments in areas the state designates as “very high fire risk.”

California’s activist one-party government, with its penchant for pretending to be a national government in relation to the hot-button issues of the left, is where all these roads end. Elites subsidize electric cars for themselves while promoting zoning that forces lower-income workers to commute three hours to a job or live in their cars. PG&E can’t keep trees off its power lines but can supply exact numbers for how many LGBTQ workers it employs.

Entrenched one-party government has given California’s political class too much incentive to cater to the perpetual, year-round, full-time priorities of public-sector unions, green groups and the organized academic left rather than care about the quality of life for the average person in the state.

Revolutions are unpredictable, and may start for good reasons and end up doing very bad things. It’s hard to see how 40 million people can go overnight from First World electric reliability to Third World electric reliability without a voter revolt. No conspicuous sign yet exists that either the dominant Democrats or the moribund Republicans are capable of articulating a critique that points in a new direction: toward a government that actually cares about taxpayers and working citizens.

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