Straight talk about energy crisis? It’s not on a ‘going-forward’ basis

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Sacramento Bee

At the Watergate hearings, John Dean and cohorts treated the nation to “At this point in time” – a fancy way of saying “now.”

The Persian Gulf War produced “collateral damage,” a sanitized description of the inadvertent killing of civilians.

At this point in time, the California energy crisis brings us this collateral damage: “on a goingforward basis.”

Suddenly, it seems, everyone who has anything to do with the power crunch is using “on a going-forward basis” or the slightly simpler verb form, “going forward.”

“AB 1x has made the utilities from this day forward, on a goingforward basis, solvent,” Treasurer Phil Angelides told reporters several weeks ago, before Pacific Gas and Electric declared bankruptcy, referring to the bill that got the state into the power-buying business.

“It just opens the door to a steady stream of rate increases going forward,” consumer activist Nettie Hoge told the San Francisco Chronicle when the Public Utilities Commission approved a rate increase.

“That number should be all that is needed going forward to keep utilities solvent,” Loretta Lynch, PUC president, said at a news conference about the rate hike.

The phrase seems to have cropped up – at least at first – to differentiate between the electricity debts already run up and those still to come. But it’s spread far beyond that, and now is used in many contexts as a substitute for the more homely “from now on.”

In a chaos of blackouts and bankruptcies, there’s a need for such a phrase. It communicates hopefulness, seeming to say, “As ugly as things have been, we’re leaving all that behind us now. We’re on a going-forward basis.”

“I guess that’s better than on a going-backward basis, or a standing-still basis, or a going-sideways basis,” said William Lutz, a professor of English at Rutgers University in New Jersey and an authority on jargon.

“The emphasis is forward-looking. ‘Going’ is action. It communicates this message of ‘We’re in control, charging into the future.’ ”

Lutz also detects in the phrase, as in others like it, an attempt by the speakers to establish authority.

“You want language that sounds impressive,” he said. “It also makes it sound like you know what you’re doing. No one wants to admit that we’re just doing the best that we can. Who wants to say that?”

The energy crisis has given birth to a whole progeny of jargon and acronyms.

This week, for instance, the governor is trying to sell the Legislature on an MOU with an IOU. (Translation: Davis wants lawmakers to agree to his plan to keep investor-owned utility Southern California Edison from going belly-up.)

The Legislature, meanwhile, is coming to grips with whether to tweak AB 1x because the IOUs challenged the CPA before the PUC. (It may change a law it passed in January to clarify the size of a bond sale for buying electricity, because utilities have challenged the formula that sets the amount.)

Will the IOUs pay back the QFs? After all, they got their CTCs, and might even be in line for a DRC, or drack. (Will the utilities pay back alternative generators, since they have been allowed to use a portion of electricity rates to pay off their debts?)

Gov. Gray Davis, meanwhile, has turned “incentive” into a verb. He spoke recently of “a billion dollars of conservation programs to incent both business and residents.”

Some take a dim view of all the new lingo.

“When they start using these big 25-cent words, you know they’re trying to obfuscate the facts,” said Harvey Rosenfield of the Foundation for Taxpayers and Consumer Rights. “They cloak them in this Wall Street and economics gobbledygook that is designed to mystify the rest of us.

“It usually means they’re going to pick your pocket.”

But others take a more forgiving view. “Language becomes language because people use it,” said Dennis Baron, head of the English Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “People expect language in conversation to be a little flabby. We use all kinds of words that don’t need to be there.”

Actually, “on a going-forward basis” is not entirely new. A search of an online database of publications shows it appearing in quotes as far back as the early 1990s, often by utility officials. But it didn’t pick up steam until the late ’90s.

Strangely, it figured in another crisis. During the presidential election recount last fall, a lawyer for Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris told the U.S. Supreme Court: “I believe the Supreme Court of Florida was looking at its law in terms of articulating the law that it wanted to have then and on a going-forward basis.”

But the phrase seems to have gained a toehold in popular speech during the energy crisis.

“I don’t think anything of it because I’ve heard it so much,” said state Sen. Jack O’Connell, D-San Luis Obispo, who used to teach high school social studies. “I’ve probably used it.

“I’ve got a feeling that’s a phrase that’s here to stay.”

Consumer Watchdog
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