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Rep. Ro Khanna on a Public Takeover of PG&E: “Why Can’t We Provide Power to Our Own Citizens?”

Ro Khanna

Ro Khanna is a progressive member of Congress from California. In an interview with Jacobin, he talks about the desperate need for public ownership of California's electrical utility PG&E, the fight for a Green New Deal, and why he's a co-chair of Bernie Sanders's 2020 campaign.

Rep. Ro Khanna at a 2017 press conference. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Interview by
Meagan Day

Last month, more than a hundred elected officials in California signed a statement endorsing the idea of a public takeover of PG&E, the state’s multibillion dollar utilities behemoth. The company has long inspired popular frustration. Now the idea of taking PG&E under democratic control boasts significant popular support, official backing, and possibly real momentum.

Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents a slice of Silicon Valley, has stepped out as a leading proponent of a PG&E takeover. He’s been pushing the idea of transforming PG&E into a public utility since October, after power outages affected millions on short notice. The outages came on the heels of a spectacular display of corporate crookedness in the summer and multiple PG&E-caused fires in the fall.

Khanna also serves as national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, which emphasizes public utilities in its plan for a Green New Deal. In December 2019, Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to him about the proposed PG&E takeover, the logic and advantages of public utilities, and the nature of Bernie’s coalition: ideologically diverse, but united in its commitment to the universal provision of essential social goods.


MD

Why can’t we trust PG&E to safely, reliably, and affordably provide utilities to the people of California?

RK

This isn’t theoretical. Let’s look at the record. PG&E has underinvested in safety, they have underinvested in necessary work to move power lines underground, and they have underinvested in provisions to make sure people retain power. They’ve taken all of their money and put it instead toward executive profits and paying out dividends to shareholders.

The model of a private, for-profit utilities company operating with oversight has not worked. That’s why the state or the customers should own it.

MD

What is the ideal form of a public takeover of PG&E?

RK

What Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, has proposed is interesting. He has said that the customers should cooperatively own the utility, with different municipalities in charge of providing power to their residents. We’ve seen this be successful with Silicon Valley Power in Santa Clara, in my district. It leads to more renewable energy, lower prices, and higher safety.

I will add that you need to make sure that the state still has a role, even in a model where many municipalities run their own utility. There are parts of the state that don’t have large municipalities that can administer power. Ideally it would be a hybrid model, with the state providing power directly to some places and municipalities providing it through a customer-owned utility in others.

MD

People have been talking about a public takeover of PG&E for a long time. Finally it seems to have reached a boiling point. Why now?

RK

These fires and power outages in California have been traumatic. California is the sixth-largest economy in the world. Why are we having this happen in the state that is also home to Silicon Valley? Why can’t we provide power to our own citizens without outages and safety hazards?

I think in the case of utilities there’s a clear understanding in California that the private profit motive has not worked. I think the same understanding is there today in healthcare, when it comes to the private insurance companies and how they have profited off the system while people have been left out. And the same understanding is there on private, for-profit schools.

There are certain basics in society like healthcare, education, and electricity that are classic public goods. These are things that every person should have, and they shouldn’t be commoditized for profit. We can have competition in other parts of the economy. People know that I’m for certain types of entrepreneurship and free enterprise. But when it comes to basic public goods, these should fall under a strong public sector.

MD

But if we are leaving capitalist enterprise otherwise undisturbed, won’t profit-hungry corporations continue to accumulate wealth and power and inevitably encroach on the areas that we’ve declared off-limits?

RK

There is no question that we need thoughtful policy. I agree with the basic argument of Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice, where he argues that there ought to be certain parts of our society that are not motivated by profit or monetary considerations, and there are other parts that do need the profit motive.

The question is how do we make sure that these spheres don’t encroach on each other. My view is that the way you make sure of that is you have strong legislation.

MD

You’re a national co-chair of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign. In Bernie’s plan for a Green New Deal, he talks explicitly about expanding municipal and cooperative electric utilities across the country.

Plenty of people support this idea, but others are quick claim it could never work. What do you say to the skeptics?

RK

Look at the rural electrification programs created as part of the New Deal. The principle then was that we needed massive federal investment to help us electrify the country. The private market wasn’t sufficient to do that because profit-motivated companies had no interest in going into certain areas. The federal investment worked, and a large portion of the country received electricity.

In the twenty-first century, we need federal investment to transition us to renewable energy. Under a public utility structure, we can set and meet bold renewable energy goals. In California, we’ve already seen that public utilities tend to have a larger renewable energy portfolios than for-profit utilities. And at the same time, it’s going to be a priority to make sure that the workers who are part of these initiatives will have good-paying union jobs.

MD

The Green New Deal is about a lot more than just public utilities, of course. Who doesn’t want us to achieve it, and why?

RK

Well, the fossil fuel industry. They’re fighting it because they know their profits are on the line. And then there are the utilities companies too. In California, politicians have taken huge amounts of money from and many are beholden to PG&E. Anybody who’s invested in a legacy industry is going to push back.

But the people who should be for a Green New Deal are anyone who cares about climate change, anyone who cares about creating millions of new good-paying jobs, anyone who wants working families to have more opportunities. Those are the people who should be for a big public investment in clean technology.

MD

The Sunrise Movement’s recently published presidential scorecard ranked Bernie Sanders’s climate plan number one in the Democratic primary field. This comes as no surprise.

The problem is that there are many people who will say, Well, of course Bernie Sanders has the best climate plan, but can he win against Donald Trump? The typical fear is that he’s too ambitious or too far left to actually win. Do you think Bernie beats Trump?

RK

Bernie Sanders will beat Donald Trump. And the reason is because his message resonates in places that Trump carried last time — rural communities, places with hollowed-out downtowns, places where plant after plant has left. He’s speaking about making sure jobs stay in the United States, ending unfair trade agreements, raising wages, investing in unions, and creating new good jobs. In places like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Iowa, his message is resonating.

MD

How does the Green New Deal relate to the economic concerns of working-class people?

RK

The Green New Deal aims to solve the biggest challenge humanity faces: climate change. And in doing that, we are also going to be providing more opportunity and more economic security for working families.

In this country, we have 140 million people who are low-income or low-wealth. We’ve had stagnation of wages for the working and middle class for basically the last forty years. Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal meets those challenges by calling for the creation of millions of new good-paying jobs in solar, wind, publicly owned utilities, and building new infrastructure. That will help build a middle class in this country again.

MD

Several other proponents of the Green New Deal — Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, us at Jacobin — call themselves democratic socialists. Do you call yourself a democratic socialist?

RK

I don’t. I call myself a progressive capitalist. I believe that we need to provide people with basic rights in order to allow them to participate in a twenty-first-century economy. Those basics include healthcare as a human right. They include education — not just K–12, but also early childhood education from the ages of zero to five, and free college or trade school. They include affordable electricity and internet access. They include a roof over your head and basic nutrition.

I want this country to give people those basics, and that’s why I support Bernie Sanders. But I also believe that once you have those basics down, an entrepreneurial, innovative economy can do extraordinary things.

MD

We differ there, in that I don’t think we should stop trying to displace the profit motive once we’ve covered the basics. But given the extent of privatization and austerity, the ruthlessness of inequality, and the ticking climate clock, it makes sense that we both feel an urgency to unite behind Bernie Sanders. That’s one of the best things about his campaign.

RK

I think that’s exactly right. People of many different ideologies support the Bernie Sanders campaign, brought together by his agenda for the common-sense basics — healthcare, education, electricity, internet, higher wages, unions. His unique ability to build a diverse coalition is part of why I’m so honored to be co-chair of his campaign.