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“Affordable” Utility Service: What is Regulation’s Role? Aided by the nation’s economy stressed, politicians are pressuring regulators to create utility service “affordable.” This picture has three problems. Wealth Redistribution is certainly not Regulation’s Department The regulator identifies prudent costs, computes a revenue requirement to cover those costs, then designs rates to produce the revenue requirement under embedded cost ratemaking. Rate design makes each customer category bear the expense it causes. None among these cost that is steps—prudent, revenue requirement computation, cost allocation—involves affordability. Affordability becomes one factor only when we jigger the numbers—if we lower rates when it comes to unfortunate by raising rates for others. Achieving affordability through rate design means compromising cost causation to redistribute wealth. It resembles taxation of one class to profit another, with this specific exception: With taxation, citizens can retire representatives whose votes offend; however with utility service, captive customers are stuck because of the rates regulators set. Rather than shifting costs between customer classes, regulators might redistribute wealth in another way: by “taxing” shareholders, for example., reducing shareholder returns underneath the otherwise appropriate level. But taxing shareholders isn’t any more the regulator’s domain than is taxing some other clients. And it’s likely unconstitutional: Having invested to serve the general public, shareholders expect “just compensation,” undiminished by a forced contribution for affordability. Moving money among citizens is essential to a society that is fair. Poverty is intolerable and charity that is private suffices, so government steps in. But helping the luckless ought to be done by political leaders, who must justify their actions to the electorate; not by professional regulators, whose focus should be industry performance. Affordability of any product—groceries, a Lexus, or utility service—depends on a single’s wealth and income, as well as on the price of other products. The poor could better afford utility service if we raised their income and increased their wealth. Or if we lowered their cost of housing, health care, transportation, or education. But these initiatives are outside regulators’ authority. To make regulators accountable for affordability is illogical. Cheap Energy is Cheap Politics Politicians who argue for affordability make the road that is easy. To legislate economic development, greenness, reliability, energy independence, and technology leadership, all efforts that increase costs, while commanding the regulator to make service “affordable,” is low-risk politics, responsibility-avoidance politics, cheap politics. When politicians call for “lower rates,” the electorate feels entitled to receive in the place of encouraged to contribute. But no family, no congregation, no civil society, thrives if its key verb is “take” in place of “give.” And when lower rates now lead to higher costs later, citizens become cynical. Self-doubting, also, as they question their ability to differentiate pander from policy. These are the total results when politicians avoid their responsibility for affordability. “Affordability” Undermines Regulation’s Responsibility Mathematician Carson Chow says he is found the reason for our obesity epidemic: low food prices. Studying 40 many years of data, he spotted both correlation and causation between girth growth and value declines. He traced these trends to government farm policy shifts (from investing in non-production to stimulating full production) and technology boosts (which lowered production costs). The low the price, the greater production; the greater production, the greater (fast) food; the more food, the greater amount of calories available; the more calories available, the more calories consumed. See C. Dreifus, “A Mathematical Challenge to Obesity,” The New York Times (May 14, 2012). We have been both over-consuming and under-appreciating: Dr. Chow discovered that “Americans are wasting food at a progressively increasing rate.” (Fairness point: Chow has his doubters. See Michael Moyer, “The Mathematician’s Obesity Fallacy,” Scientific American (May 15, 2012). So what does food have to do with “affordable” utility service? A regulator’s job would be to regulate—to performance that is establish, then align compensation with compliance. In this equation, affordability is certainly not a variable. To create service affordable to your unlucky, the commission would need to lower the purchase price below cost. That leads to overconsumption, to Dr. Chow’s “waste.” This inefficiency hurts everyone. Economic efficiency exists when no action that is further create benefits without increasing costs by more than the advantages. Conversely, economic inefficiency exists when we forego some action that, if taken, will make someone better off without making anyone worse off. To over-consume, to waste, to behave inefficiently, to go out of good results on the table, makes everyone worse off. Underpricing when you look at the true name of affordability makes someone worse off, unnecessarily. How sensible is that? Actions for Affordability: The Right Roles for Regulators Unless essential services are affordable, government shall not be credible. Regulators, being section of government, have to help. (A commission staff chief told me 25 years back, “Sometimes you have to put aside your principles and do what’s right.”) And some regulatory statutes explicitly require the regulator in order to make service “affordable.” (as it is the truth, i will be told, in Vanuatu, an nation that is 83-island the South Pacific.) Here are three straight ways, in keeping with economic efficiency, for regulators to handle affordability. Help the unlucky reduce usage. Regulators can advocate for affordability by pressing for policies that produce consumption less costly, like improved housing stock, “orbs” that signal high prices, and lighting that is efficient appliances. Analogy: Doctors save lives not only by treating gunshot wounds, but by advocating for gun safety. (American Academy of Pediatrics: “The absence of guns from children’s homes and communities is one of reliable and effective measure to prevent firearm-related injuries. “) Interpret “affordability” as long-term affordability. Getting prices right and preventing overconsumption, even if it increases prices within the short run, reduces total costs in the run that is long. Expose the side that is dark of. Rather than follow politicians along the low-price, low-risk, cheap politics path, regulators, like Dr. Chow, can talk facts: concerning the real costs of utility service, the situation of overconsumption, the error of under-pricing. Due to their credibility rooted in expertise, regulators can pressure legislators to act on affordability directly by enacting income-raising policies. Better education, housing, and health care—all these lead to higher incomes, making sure that citizens can afford utility service priced properly.

“Affordable” Utility Service: What is Regulation’s Role? Aided by the nation’s economy stressed, politicians are pressuring regulators to create utility service “affordable.” This picture has three problems. Wealth Redistribution is certainly not Regulation’s Department The regulator identifies prudent costs, computes a revenue requirement to cover those costs, then designs rates to produce the revenue requirement […]

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