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Separation of electrical and political power

Steve BucksteinQuickPoint!

Even after voters soundly rejected a government takeover of Portland General Electric, Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten still wants the city to take over PGE.

Sten particularly opposes Oregon Electric’s purchase offer for PGE because the primary investors are not Oregonians, and they will eventually sell their interest in order to get a return on their money. He tries to compare these investors to the most prominent industrialists of early 19th century America.

Men like Rockefeller, Carnegie and Vanderbilt were largely responsible for the industrialization of America, which led to improvements in wages and living conditions for all Americans. Yet, because they were often unsavory and tough businessmen, they were incorrectly labeled “robber barons.”

A little research uncovers the often ignored side of these men, like the fact that they often turned their great fortunes to building great philanthropic enterprises such as museums, art galleries and universities.

The primary confusion in the robber baron view of history “is that it fails to separate market entrepreneurs, who tried to succeed by creating and marketing a superior product at a low cost, and political entrepreneurs, who tried to succeed by using government to give them an advantage.”

Today’s robber barons are likely to be the people who gain special favors from City Hall, not those who seek to build and run largely private enterprises.

If PGE becomes a government utility, there will be many more special favors to be granted.

Steve Buckstein is senior policy analyst at Cascade Policy Institute, a Portland, Oregon based think tank.

© 2006, Cascade Policy Institute. All rights reserved. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and Cascade Policy Institute are cited. Contact Cascade at (503) 242-0900 to arrange print or broadcast interviews on this topic. For more topics visit the QuickPoint! archive.

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