Greg Palast The Observer - Britain's Premier Sunday Newspaper - Guardian Media Group
ACLU Upton Sinclair Award (Acceptance)
ACLU of Southern California, San Pedro (Los Angeles)
Saturday, May 15, 2004


Jerrold Oppenheim and Theo MacGregor

Acceptance of ACLU Upton Sinclair Freedom of Expression Award

Los Angeles, California

May 15, 2004



[ACLU Introduction] Every organizer knows that the worst thing you can do is to get someone excited about an idea, or an ideology or a movement, and then be asked “what do we do, now?” Noam Chomsky tries to solve the problem with footnotes, websites and addresses...which is great for coalition building and more organizing. But what do we do now? So the Uppie Committee was quite impressed to learn that Greg Palast, who was getting a lot of people excited about election fraud in Florida and ex-patriot journalism in general, had co-authored a book entitled DEMOCRACY AND REGULATION: How the Public Can Govern Essential Services.

His co-authors, Jerrold Oppenheim and Theo MacGregor are here tonight to accept the UPPIE Award for “becoming the media” and helping to answer the tough question. What do we do now? This is a practical how to book, and is essential reading for anyone in the neighborhood council movement...or to anyone rebuilding a country without a plan.

We proudly welcome Jerrold Oppenheim and Theo MacGregor.


Our contribution is a little different from those of some of our fellow Uppies, and we are grateful to the ACLU for recognizing it. The job we assigned ourselves is to dig deeply into one important, symbolic, but narrow sector of the political economy – essential public utilities – to expose and explain the exploitation and injustice imposed by turning utility service over to the market, and then to set out the steps by which ordinary citizens can, and do, control multi-billion dollar utility industries.


Upton Sinclair taught us all the dynamic impact of combining important information, pointed writing, and a progressive political agenda. Almost 100 years ago, the Pure Food and Drug bill had languished in Congress for a decade. Then it whipped through less than six months after The Jungle documented the sale as food of animals that had died of poison, cholera and tuberculosis.


Freedom of Expression, Upton Sinclair-style, leads to action. What an honor to be associated with that legacy.


There is an important personal connection too. Jerry’s first job as a licensed lawyer was for the ACLU in Chicago – locus of The Jungle – where he was privileged to enter a community of lawyers devoted to the principle of Free Expression.


But Jerry’s first job out of law school, before those dreaded bar exams, was even closer to the Upton Sinclair tradition. He was in the second flight of Nader’s Raiders, detailed to the small group investigating the production of the chicken we eat. His work was to uncover – and help stop – an industry campaign to sneak cancerous chickens onto our dinner plates. Of course, his work was inspired by his reading of The Jungle.


There’s an old lawyer’s saw – if you have the facts on your side, hammer the facts; if you have the law, stress the law; and if you have neither the facts nor the law, bang the table. Those first jobs, and Upton Sinclair, taught that the most effective progressive activists have all three – the facts, principle, and a table to bang on. Freedom of Expression that leads to action.


Theo came to her activism through a different route.  Although she grew up in a New Jersey suburb, she taught high school in inner-city Detroit in the early 70’s, then worked as a social worker in the some of the worst public housing projects in Boston.  But it was regulating electric companies for the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities that taught her that ordinary people, working through NGO’s, could really make a difference!  Together with progressive regulators, advocates could convince reluctant corporations – whose primary goal was to sell electricity – to promote energy conservation.  They could protect poor people from high price increases by offering them discounts on their utility bills – and make sure their gas or electricity wasn’t shut off during cold weather just because they couldn’t pay those bills.


But then states began to de-regulate the public utility companies.  Now, why would they do that when regulation was working – at least reasonably well?  It was the era begun by Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan when all things would be better if the government just got out of the way and let the market prevail!


So Greg, Theo, and Jerry wrote Democracy And Regulation to expose utility deregulation. Most of you lived here in California through the blackouts and tenfold price increases imposed by the wisdom of the Invisible Hand. Noone has to explain the exploitation of deregulation to you! Some of the perpetrators will spend not enough time in jail, and $70 billion or more will never be returned. In New England last winter, generation owners ran up prices twenty-fold for three days. They did this by taking plants out of service – sound familiar? – but the grid operator concluded this was OK because it was “generally consistent with expected competitive behavior.” Well yes.


But we had a second purpose: to publish a manual for democracy, a book that shows how ordinary American citizens control multi-billion dollar utility industries. An important part of the California electricity debacle is that, at least so far, you have re-imposed democratic regulatory control, and some of the worst of the exploiters are headed for jail. That work is not over – as Public Utilities Commissioner Carl Wood warns, “It has only taken us three years for us to figure out how we’re going to create a new disaster.” Unbelievably, there are proposals being taken seriously to deregulate electricity again. And, at the same time, plans are afoot to privatize your water supply by turning the seas over to privateers for the production of drinking water.


It is Democratic Regulation that stopped nuclear power expansion, created the wind power industry (especially here in California, although the wind is much better in the mid-West), and maintained a skilled workforce to keep the lights on – always by means of Free Expression leading to action.


But not only do we hope to revive democracy in the US. We also wrote Democracy And Regulation to show folks around the world the democratic alternative to the World Bank vision of market control over essential utility services.


Marketized utilities in developing countries have replaced running water with cholera-causing pit latrines for sewage, rationed essential utility services made scarce by market mismanagement, and doubled prices for water and electricity – a 400% increase in one case – to people who already spend as much as 90% of their incomes for food.


The profit drive unleashed by marketization of essential services spreads pain widely. Investments are promised to bring electricity and running water to more people. Instead, disinvestment and mass firings of workers result only in diminished – though more expensive – service, including blackouts without enough workers to fix them. Utility worker cuts of 20%-40% have plagued the planet.


It would be bad enough if this exploitation were a feature only of internationalized utility services. But it is not so limited. Utility marketization is only a part of a massive international strategy to transfer resources and wealth away from already-poor communities. There is an orchestrated effort to establish a value system that demands service to market masters rather than caring for people and communities. So today’s Fair Trade Rally is a perfect fit with Democracy And Regulation!


The Congress of South African Trade Unions draws exactly the right conclusion: “Enough. We did not fight for liberation so that we could sell everything we won to the highest bidder.”


Or, as we end our book: Demand Democracy!


For more information about the book, Democracy And Regulation, please visit




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