The Guardian last week featured an article that enigmatically began with this sentence: “The CEO of the biggest power company in the US had a problem.” It went on to describe in some detail the nature of the problem, initially revealed in a document leaked to the Orlando Sentinel. It concerned the CEO’s strategic reaction to a proposal in the Florida State Senate of a “law that could cut into Florida Power & Light’s (FPL) profits” by allowing landlords “to sell cheap rooftop solar power directly to their tenants – bypassing FPL and its monopoly on electricity.” A CEO’s job is obviously to solve this kind of “problem.”
Fortunately for Eric Silagy, the CEO of Florida Power & Light’s (FPL), US corporate culture encourages bold initiatives designed to solve problems, even the problems of a power company that fears it might lose its monopoly and lose a share of its captive profits. The source of the problem was a state legislator who dared to propose a law intended both to benefit consumers and help transform an economy whose dependence on fossil fuels has created a climate crisis already visibly spreading havoc across swathes of the globe. Florida, in particular, is looking towards a future in which rising sea levels threaten much of the real estate along its extensive and overdeveloped coastline.
Silagy mustered his most refined strategic skills and executive grit to apply the kind of solution that only well-schooled executives understand. A believer in the virtue of delegation, Silagy ordered two of his vice-presidents to focus their attention on the legislator in question, a State senator by the name of Jose Javier Rodriguez. “I want you to make his life a living hell … seriously,” Silagy instructed his underlings. Adding “seriously” at the end indicated that his order belonged to the realm of high strategy rather than ordinary, everyday business tactics.
Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:
1. An enterprise that produces and distributes power in the form of electricity
2. Any company with excessive profit margins and massive amounts of cash to spend on undermining the power of democracy.
Many people will classify this drama as an outlier, relegating it to just another story of a “bad apple,” an individual lacking any normal ethical standards who poisons the lives of others. But given the fact that it involves both politics and business at the highest level, it illuminates issues that are at the core of both the social order and of democracy itself.
Despite the first impression it creates, The Guardian’s article eventually makes it clear that Silagy may not be the principal villain of the story. Silagy hypocritically deemed his crime to be nothing more than a “poor choice of words.” What he means is that, however immoral, asocial and subversive of the political order his attitude and actions were, he runs no risk of being formally charged with anything other than aggressive business practices in a culture that believes aggressive practices to be a virtue rather than a vice.
Silagy has done nothing criminal. But as an article in the Miami New Times informs us: “criminal charges have been filed in relation to the defeats of Rodríguez and another Democratic senate candidate.”, but Matrix and FPL have not been accused of wrongdoing.
The real culprit in the Guardian’s story is a company called Matrix that appears to be specialized in doing any kind of dirty work required by companies in the fossil fuel and power distribution industries, essentially to help them protect and reinforce their monopolies.
The Guardian tells us that Matrix’s work touched almost every level of politics in Florida, from influencing local mayoral and county commission elections to combating attempts to reshape the state constitution. In each of those cases, Matrix was working against politicians or policies fighting to curb the climate crisis by encouraging renewable power.” Matrix has also been influencing politics in Alabama and at least six other states.
The Guardian notes that in the state of “Florida, FPL and Matrix demonstrated how a utility and its consultants can work in tandem to resist clean energy reforms.” In the long history of political corruption in the US, exemplified by Tammany Hall in the 19th century, corruption usually tended to be a straight quid pro quo, though often cleverly concealed. Money for action. Today’s corrupt practices are based not on simple subterfuges such as fake invoices, but on refining the apparently legitimate professional skills exercised by lobbyists and especially consultants, who know all the tricks of the trade.
The fact that this incident has led to criminal charges against five individuals (usually called “patsies”) but not against the powerful actors – FPL and Matrix – reflects a sophisticated organizational intelligence capable of accomplishing astounding and obviously illegal feats without exposing the true perpetrators, who have done nothing but exercise their managerial talents. Subcontracting dirty work is the key. Those who are eventually nabbed for illegal acts are at several removes from the decision-makers and appear to be acting on their own.
The first basic organizational rule is to outsource all the concrete actions to true professionals. These are consultants skilled at navigating the law, people who understand what they can get away with and know how to delegate to people further outside the direct commercial logic of the business: the patsies.
All this derives from the famous Thatcher/Reagan logic that glorified the wisdom of putting public services in private hands. People who only focus on profit are, according to this philosophy, the only ones capable of being “efficient.” If efficiency involves removing political obstacles in a democracy, they are the ones who will know how to do it. And if everything happens this way thanks to the fact that public services will always have a character of monopoly, then any hope of realizing the dream of democracy – government of the people, by the people and for the people – will, in Lincoln’s words, “perish from the earth.” That is, if it hasn’t already done so.
Corruption has evolved since Tammany Hall. Here is how History describes the true secret to Tammany Hall’s success:“Although its name was synonymous with corruption to many, Tammany Hall’s popularity and endurance resulted from its willingness to help the city’s poor and immigrant populations.”
Unlike Tammany Hall, FPL’s and Matrix’s corruption serves one purpose: to help rich monopolists.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.