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Local Libertarian Lawrence Samuels’ latest offering in the Monterey Herald opposing a public takeover of Cal Am raises at least two questions. The first is how far the Carmel Valleyite will go in creating awkward comparisons.

A few months back in the Herald, Samuels equated a negotiated public takeover of a public utility with the type of nationalism that occurred under the European Fascists of the previous century.

In April he wrote, “It is nothing new that the anti-water crusaders want to force the sale of a business concern via eminent domain. This type of government seizure occurred in the 1930s all over Europe. Mussolini nationalized three-fourths of his economy in 1934. The National Socialists of Germany did the same, confiscating over 500 large companies through Reichswerke Hermann Göring in an anti-capitalist bid to establish a command economy and to increase the redistribution of wealth.”

Jeepers.

Now, on Thursday’s opinion page in the Herald, he goes farther yet, farther even than the headline writer envisioned. The headline declared that “Using eminent domain against Cal Am is like stealing.” Samuels didn’t stop there. I’ll let him tell you in his own words:

“… (T)he ballot measure proposed by the pro-eminent domain ideologues to forcibly seize Cal Am is reminiscent of antebellum slavery.”

Slavery.

In a seemingly earnest attempt to back this up, Samuels tells us about the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, who was well known for using the word “manstealing” in connection with slavery. Because a man’s life has value, enslaving that man amounts to stealing.

So how does Samuels link this to public ownership of Cal Am, the water company that serves most of the Monterey Peninsula?

Not well.

“Garrison was also a proponent of ‘self-ownership,’ meaning that people owned themselves and therefore cannot be stolen and enslaved. He worried that if government itself attained the authority to legally steal, it could take anything by force.” What that has to do with slavery isn’t clear, and that’s being charitable. And to get from there to a Cal Am takeover requires a leap of a length that would tax most imaginations, but apparently not Samuels’.

Eminent domain is a fancy term but it’s really pretty simple.  When the government, as a representative of the public, decides that it needs to aquire something to advance the public good, even something that is not for sale, the law allows it to apply the principle of eminent domain and require a sale. It is most commonly used to acquire land for roads or railroads, or such things as schools and post offices. Fortunately for landowners, but not for Samuels’ argument, the law does not allow the government to simply take the property in question. Instead, it requires the government to pay fair market value. Sometimes that price is arrived at through simple negotiation. Unwilling sellers tend to negotiate more vigorously than willing sellers.

Not always but often, the parties involved are unable to come to an agreement on the price. So they put on their better clothes and hop on down to the local courthouse to make their cases to a judge. This process is a lot like a trial, often involving accountants and expert witnesses paid to say things like “too low” or “that simply won’t cover it.”

In several recent cases of public takeovers of Cal Am water systems around the county, the court has awarded the company significantly more than the government agency had offered. Based on the stock price, it appears that Cal Am shareholders have not suffered.

While the use of eminent domain has accomplished much good over the decades, it has taken on a bad name, partly because government has done a lousy job of explaining it. Despite its obvious necessity at times, some politicians play to the crowd by vowing never to use it. Former Monterey Mayor Dan Albert Sr.  was wildly popular in part because he shunned eminent domain while carrying out the Windows on the Bay campaign, which opened the Monterey waterfront to the public. It took longer but the city simply waited until each property owner along the beach was ready and willing to sell.

Cal Am insists it is not a willing seller, but could that be a negotiating tactic? For years now, Cal Am officials have maintained that their Peninsula system is not for sale even though, they say, it is only marginally profitable despite its government-backed profit guarantees.  If statement B is true, doesn’t statement A become suspect?

Back to Samuels for a moment. After trying briefly and unsuccessfully to tell us how eminent domain is like slavery, he briefly revisits Germany of the 1920s before asking how the “pro-stealing cohorts” eyeing Cal Am would like it if someone came along and used eminent domain against them.

“If stealing becomes acceptable,” he asks, “should we eminent domain Public Water Now supporters, confiscate their homes and bank accounts for the common good, bulldoze their buildings for public parks? Wouldn’t this be the appropriate karma?”

How to answer that other than to call it what it is, an asinine question. How about this? Perhaps Lawrence and his buddies at the Libertarian Lodge can start a fund to buy the houses and other assets of every school board member who ever voted to use eminent domain in order to build a school, every senator who ever voted to build a highway, every city council member who ever voted to turn an eyesore into a park?

At the top of this essay, I noted that Samuels’ piece raised at least two questions. The second is simply why the Herald would print something like this. Is it as simple as my friend Dan Turner opined after the earlier Samuels piece: that it was free? Or has the newspaper adopted a position that nonsense is OK in defense of Cal Am?

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What was wrong with the two energy-related commentaries in Sunday’s Monterey Herald? It’s hard to know where to start, so let’s just go with the first headline.

Both pieces were objections to the planned Monterey Bay Community Power project, a three-county, government-led consortium that would compete with Pacifc Gas & Electric Co. One piece was one written by Pacific Grove businessman Jeff Gorman and the other by Libertarian Party stalwart Lawrence Samuels, who seems to be opposed to just about everything.

The headline on Gorman’s piece, reflecting a theme also picked up by Samuels, reads “Monopoly on power not the answer.” OK, as I pointed out a jillion times in my reporting days, the headline is not written by the author. It is written by a copy editor, who, in the case of The Herald, probably lives somewhere near Chico.

Regardless, it’s an airball of a headline even if it isn’t entirely Gorman’s fault. The three-county MBCP entity would be an alternative to Pacific Gas & Electric Co., a true monopoly. As a competitor of PG&E, the new entity would, by definition, not be a monopoly. PG&E would remain in business. And here’s a point not made in Gorman’s piece, residents of the three counties involved – Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito – would be allowed to opt out of the new power structure and stay with PG&E at a cost of $10 a month.

Gorman writes that state law “allows these new government entities to convert PG&E customers into government customers without customer approval.” That simply is not so. Rather than be a monopoly, MBCP would eliminate a monopoly and customers would have a choice.

Organizers of the MBCP, led by former Republican state senator and California Secretary of State Bruce McPherson, say the goal is to provide cheaper power than the power we are forced to buy from PG&E and to promote the use of sustainable power supplies such as solar and wind-generated energy. Low-income households now receiving discounts from PG&E would be able to retain the discounts.

Each of the three county governments and most of the cities in those counties have signed onto the plan.

The headline on Samuels’ piece declares “Rates will zoom with new agency.” Which might be true but a more accurate headline would have been “Rates will zoom with new agency or they might actually go down.” A similar setup in Sonoma County led to lower rates while the other consortiums in California are still pursuing that goal.

Samuels, like Gorman, gets lost in the monopoly thing. “As any first-year student of economics can attest, government monopoly and state ownership is far less efficient and greatly more expensive than the private sector …. “ He mentions “backward incentives.” But quite a few first-semester students of economics would remind Gorman that there is a worse creature out there, generally less efficient and more expensive than the others, and that is the government-regulated monopoly. If PG&E isn’t proof of that, just think about California American Water, which pretty much invented backward incentives. Enough said.

Samuels wasn’t finished, though, having still another foot to shoot. After his wayward lecture on monopolies, he tells us “no private sector utility is able to compete with a government agency swimming in taxpayer-provided state subsidies.” In other words, he seems to be saying MBCP’s prices would likely be lower than PG&E’s, which maybe should have been his point in the first place.

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