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Gordon Campbell on electricity, executions, and Bob Dylan

Gordon Campbell on electricity pricing, executions, and Bob Dylan at 75

This week, New Zealand’s crisis of poverty and homelessness has been making headlines around the world.

At exactly the same time, Electricity Authority has unveiled the final version of its pricing plan for electricity transmission. This will change the way transmission prices (which comprise about 10% of the average power bill) are computed, and will add hundreds of dollars a year to power bills for many ordinary consumers. Those consumers living in depressed communities on the West Coast, in Northland and in Auckland will be hardest hit. Consumers living elsewhere in the South island and in some other regions will gain reductions, and the Tiwai Point aluminum smelter will enjoy a power bill cut of at least $20 million.

It is not as if the Electricity Authority is stone deaf, politically. It knows this is a hard sell – how do you justify raising anyone’s prices, when demand has been falling? - and it has packaged the bad news accordingly. Last year its draft pricing plan had envisaged a $50-55 million price cut for the Tiwai Point smelter. Yesterday though, it split up the payoff. The smelter has been promised circa $20 million upfront, with further generosity on call later, should the smelter be able to convince government that it getting a bigger price discount would be in New Zealand’s best interests. Given the Key government’s usual ready compliance with the wishes of business lobbies, that request should be a pushover.

Submissions are being invited on the price plan proposal, and the changes are due to take effect in 2019.

Mind you, the Electricity Authority has never had the needs of consumers at the forefront of its thinking. By statute, its efforts are mainly geared at securing healthy profits for investors in a national electricity grid. A grid that is heading into its sunset years – given the pace of competition from localised forms of power generation such as solar, small hydro dams and local windfarms, and by the demand reductions made possible by the increased use of smart metering. As this column pointed out in February, the Authority has a statutory obligation to protect the ‘long term’ interests of the consumer, but its more pressing obligations are to protect the investors, by delivering them ‘certainty’. Section 2.2 of its 2010 Consultation Code document said so, explicitly:

The primary purpose of the principles is to provide industry participants with greater predictability about decision-making on likely amendments to the Code, to maximise investor certainty.

Yesterday’s RNZ report on the mooted pricing plan made exactly the same point:

At present, consumers pay an equal share of the cost of running the national grid; they pay the same whether they live at the far end of a 1000km power line or just down the road from a hydro dam. The Electricity Authority has long believed that people who benefit most from a service should pay the most for it, and that cross subsidies can hinder investment.

Last June, the authority produced a paper saying reforms could produce better efficiency by providing incentives so that the right investments occurred at the right time, and in the right place.

Those ‘right investments’ being in the national grid. And if that means NOT offering incentives to local small scale local generation, then so be it. The language is instructive. ‘Cross subsidies hinder investment’? Yep, we’re still living in the 1980s, with market imperatives trumping the needs of people. It explains why the Authority is creating a plan that will enable investors to milk consumers for longer, in order to sustain investment in a national grid – when arguably, consumers might be better able to afford to heat their homes if better incentives were being offered for small scale, localised generation and distribution. Or if government was trying harder to foster pricing plans and transparency whereby consumers could get to manage their price use more efficiently, reduce their consumption, and lower their power bills. But all that wouldn’t be in the interests of the investors that the Electricity Authority exists to serve.

Drug Companies Do Right

It isn’t often that major drug companies deserve a round of applause. Yet in the wake of its take-over of the Hospira drug company, Pfizer has just banned the sale of seven drugs pof its drugs to US prisons, for use in executions. This policy change made Pfizer the last of some 25 FDA-approved makers globally, to officially deny access to their products for use in lethal injections.

Pfizer on Friday posted its policy, saying that it will sell the drugs only to a handful of specialty drug distributors who contractually agree not to resell them for executions and to verify their buyers. Pfizer said it will continually monitor sales to make every effort to prevent the drugs from being diverted to death sentences. “Pfizer makes its products to enhance and save the lives of the patients we serve. Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment,” Pfizer said in its position paper.

As the above report indicates, the ban can be difficult to monitor. In 2011 for instance, a Danish drug firm found that its epilepsy drug Nembutal was being used for executions, and had to devise a system of delivery directly to hospitals. And similarly:

Sometimes, third-party buyers have acquired the execution drugs and re-sold them to prisons. In 2013, German drugmaker Fresenius Kabi scolded a U.S. wholesaler after it accidentally sold its anaesthetic propofol to the state of Missouri, which intended to use it for executions. Fresenius then withheld shipping the drug to the wholesaler, instead shipping it directly to its hospital clients to make sure they did not suffer shortages.

Such difficulties aside, Big Pharma does seem to be trying its best to do the right thing on this issue.

Dylan at 75

Looks like being a big week for Bob Dylan fans. This week marks the 50th anniversary of the Blonde on Blonde album, and next Tuesday will be Dylan’s 75th birthday. (‘Is he only 75?’ a youngster in the Scoop office commented.) Periodically, the question of the sexism in Dylan lyrics will surface. “ Just Like a Woman” is a prime example of the great man’s problematic depiction of women, as was noted a few days ago in this Salon article.

Sexist imagery prevails and there is a frequent casting of women who have done a man wrong. Most often, his work tends to cast women into narrow tropes and roles. Marion Meade in The New York Times describes his “Just Like A Woman” from “Blonde on Blonde” by saying, “there’s no more complete catalogue of sexist slurs,” and goes on to note that he “defines women’s natural traits as greed, hypocrisy, whining and hysteria.”…. [There’s] a lifetime of woman as object, woman as crying mess, woman as fashion model, woman as sweetheart in need of a kitchen, woman as child, woman as vixen in [Dylan] songs. What does it mean for a feminist like me to have one of her great artistic influences be such a sexist in so much of his work?

Fair enough. It is hard to regard the ‘take like a woman/make love like a woman/ break just like a little girl’ triad in a positive light. Toward the end of the song though, there is an interesting image of the narrator’s dominance being undermined by…desire, and/or by material need. Hard to tell exactly what is being referred to in the “ hunger” in question. And true, it may simply be just another one of his poor boy/predatory rich girl images:

When we meet again, introduced as friends,
Please don't let on that you knew me when
I was hungry, and it was your world.

This may be a small consolation, but “Just Like A Woman” isn’t as harsh as “Don’t Think Twice” with its “You just sorta wasted my precious time” dismissal of the boringly demanding lover left behind in the wake of our rake and rambling narrator. Even when early Dylan was trying to be kind, he would come out with lines like “She knows too much to argue or to judge” and “banker’s nieces seek perfection /expecting all the gifts that wise men bring.” Foxy, mysterious but pliable. A feminine ideal to which a lot of 25 year old guys probably still ascribe.

So… how come the song still works, even when all this is blindingly evident? Given how much Dylanology is based on the micro-sifting of lyric meanings, it is hard not to listen to the words. Yet the melody of “Just Like A Woman” acts like a balm regardless, and there have been some good cover versions of the song ; by Richie Havens on his first album, by Van Morrison on the 1971 Pacific Studios bootleg ( a great interpretation, despite Morrison tossing in a random bit of homophobia to go along with the sexism) and this version, by Nina Simone. More on Dylan next week.

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