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Technology and Culture 41.3 (2000) 608-610

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Book Review

Empowering the West: Electrical Politics Before FDR

Empowering the West: Electrical Politics Before FDR. By Jay L. Brigham. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998. Pp. xi+211; tables, appendixes, bibliography, index. $35.

A good history of the debate over public versus private power has been needed for a long time. Deregulation in the electrical industry reveals that this is still a contentious issue. In California, for example, the struggle of proponents of public power against the unfettered greed of private power --to use the Progressives' language of the last century--is just warming up in the wake of Pacific Gas and Electric's decision to sell off its scores of hydroelectric plants. As we begin the new century, it would be nice if we could have a balanced account of the public-private power battles in the first decades of twentieth. Unfortunately, this is not to be found in Empowering the West. Rather, Jay Brigham provides only a sketch of the national public-private power debate supported by an interesting though incomplete look at the issue in two Pacific Coast cities and a handful of Midwestern towns.

Following a general introduction, Brigham devotes two chapters to the concentration and political influence of the power industry on the national level during the 1920s, and to the related national political debate as it played out in Congress. He considers which senators and congressmen voted for or against issues related to public power in light of their region, [End Page 608] their party affiliation, and (as an admittedly imperfect measurement of "electrical modernization") the numbers of households among their constituents that had radios. The results: public power had most support, indeed bipartisan support, in the western, northern central, and southern states. Moreover, senators and representatives from regions in which there were fewer radios gave more support to public power than did those from other regions, but Brigham does not make clear which regions these were. Perhaps it is my own failing, but I thought his presentation of data was convoluted, and in the end I found myself wondering what of consequence I really had learned.

The remainder of Empowering the West is concerned with three case studies of public versus private power at the local level, linking the local to the national through congressmen and senators. First, Brigham reviews the issue in a number of small towns in Wisconsin, Missouri, and Minnesota, touching also on Texas and Kansas. He concludes that "political control of electricity for economic reasons" rather than technology drove the decision to develop municipal power (pp. 86 and 91). His second case is that of Seattle, a city with a strong liberal-labor tradition supportive of public power and one in which nearby, abundant, and ultimately cheap electric power led to its widespread use. He concludes again that economics plus the desire for "electrical modernization" drove the political battle for public power. Finally, he turns to Los Angeles, a resource-scarce city with an antilabor tradition, and he finds that the same things drove the public power issue there as elsewhere: rates and political control of electricity.

Much of the book rests on Brigham's a priori conclusion that there was a clear "difference between electrification and electrical modernization"--that is, having a wired house versus using electricity to its fullest benefit (pp. 20-21). During the early part of the twentieth century, people understood and accepted that difference, and this is what framed the political fight over public power before FDR. Ronald Tobey was Brigham's mentor, and Brigham borrows this idea from Tobey's Technology as Freedom: The New Deal and the Electrical Modernization of the American Home (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), employing it throughout his own book to distinguish supporters of private and public power. In the end, however, I am not sure that any distinction between electrification and electrical modernization is as crucial to his story as is the view held by public power advocates that private power interests were simply greedy robber barons...


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