Small is beautiful

Back in the mid-1970s, at a large land-grant university in a Midwestern galaxy far, far away, I took a course in economic geography. The professor assigned a book that had just been published called Small is Beautiful — Economics as if People Mattered, by someone I had never heard of — one E.F. Schumacher.

I took lots of economics courses on my way to earning a Bachelor of Arts in Economics, but this course was different. It was taught by the Geography Department. The Economics Department would never have assigned a book with a chapter called “Buddhist Economics.” This was the same department that later established the Kenneth Lay Chair in Economics, after the then-Enron CEO, a much more (in)famous and well-heeled alumni than me, donated $1.1 million shortly before Enron fell apart. The department kept the money, which was, of course, the economically rational thing to do.

Schumacher laid out some radical economic ideas in his book: that “men organized in small units will take better care of their bit of land or natural resources;” that work was not just a way to maximize economic output but was something “decreed by Providence for the good of man’s body and soul” (quoting that noted economist Pope Pius XI); and that we could “interest ourselves in new forms of partnership between management and men, even forms of common ownership.” It was pretty out-of-the-box thinking for its time.

I finished the course, finished my degree, and decided that the dismal science as taught by my alma mater was not for me. So, I went to law school. After that, as a young associate in a large D.C. corporate law firm, I discovered energy law and, even more important, that there were different varieties of utilities. It did not take long for me to decide that it would be better for my “body and soul” if I labored on behalf of utilities that were not-for-profit and whose incentives were to serve the communities that owned them. I switched law firms and dived into the world of municipal utilities, spending the next decade working with public gas superintendents and utility managers in smaller cities and towns in the South and Southwest. I also did legal work for the American Public Gas Association. I really liked my clients, and while it took some time for them to get used to having a young woman as their Federal Energy Regulatory Commission counsel, they eventually became an extended family to me. My rather tortuous career path eventually led on to public power utilities and to the job I am now privileged to have.

Throughout my career, I have been struck by the dedication and single-mindedness of public power (and gas) managers and employees. They really do try to do the right things for the right reasons and to do right by the communities they serve. That is because they themselves live in those communities, and especially in smaller communities, they are likely to know many of their customers personally — they are friends and neighbors.

When I learned that this issue of Public Power Magazine would focus on small public power utilities, I immediately recalled Small is Beautiful. I ordered the book (long since left behind in some move) online from Amazon (yes, I see the irony in that!) to reacquaint myself with it. Reading Schumacher again, some 40 years later, I found some of his views questionable, such as his assertion that women “on the whole, do not need an ‘outside’ [the home] job.” But some of his basic premises — that economic organizations should serve people (and not vice versa), and that smaller economic units on a more human scale might actually do a better job of maximizing societal welfare, still resonate. Bigger is not always better, as the Enron debacle taught us all (except, perhaps, my alma mater’s Economics Department).

The articles in this issue highlight how smaller public power utilities can indeed be beautiful. They pride themselves on doing more with less, saving their customers money. Because they are a vital part of their communities, they can take on an innovative project or do a pilot program with a minimum of red tape if they see a community need or desire. And if they cannot provide a service themselves, they can partner with others, including joint action agencies and state associations, to achieve the strength that comes from greater numbers.

Many Association members tell me that the Larry Hobart Seven Hats Award is their favorite of all the awards we give out each June at our National Conference. The people who get this award are the heart and soul of public power, and they give the labor of their “bodies and souls” to benefit their communities every day.

Public power employees should be proud that their labor is meaningful and benefits their fellow man (and woman!). Thank you for all you do.