Did you ever have the experience of reading about two seemingly unrelated subjects, but having the one bring the other into sharper focus? Perusing Sunday’s Los Angeles Times I came across an interesting article on page A35 about Senator Fran Pavley’s latest effort to reduce our energy consumption: SB 488. Entitled, “Keeping up with the Joneses’ electric bills”, the article describes the bill, signed by Governor Schwarzenegger, which will change the way our energy (and in the future, water) bills will look like in the near future.

SB 488 creates a series of pilot projects through the California Public Utilities Commission and California Energy Commission in which our gas and electric bills will not only tell us how much energy we used, but how this compares (generally) with our neighbors. Utilizing software from a company called OPOWER, the new statements will give consumers far better and clearer information, but, at the same time, based on a psychological concept called “norm to conform”, hopes that these comparisons will reduce our energy use through, essentially, peer pressure. As Alex Laskey, president and co-founder of OPOWER put it, “The utility bill we get in the mail is inscrutable. We thought there might be some opportunity to provide people with a better context for understanding their consumption and, in doing so, motivate people to take action.”

This informed consumerism seems to work. As the Times’ reporting describes, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, where this “comparative home energy information” has been tested in 35,000 homes, 75% reduced their energy consumption. Yale Law professor, Ian Ayres, who studied how the OPOWER software influenced consumer behavior, was quoted saying part of the project’s effectiveness is due to “the norm to conform to what most other people do and desire for social approval.”

As someone who supports informed decision-making, I find the premise of SB 488 to be a solid one – not to mention cost-effective – but I began wondering, how much more powerful this new campaign would be if we could see how much electricity/gas/water our neighbors were actually using? Living here in Santa Monica I can just imagine what would happen if one of my neighbors discovered I was using “too much” of something – talk about “norm to conform”! After all, when Al Gore’s profligate energy use was revealed, he quickly “greened up” his stately mansion.

The difference between these two steps is obvious: SB 488 treats Californians as adults who will make rational decisions based on important information. That next stage uses information as a coercive tool so that consumers make decisions out of fear.

It was with wry interest, then, that I flipped back to the front-page story in that same Los Angeles Times about making petition signatures public. Entitled, “Outing your political foes”, the article discusses the recent Supreme Court ruling, blocking the publication of 138,000 names of Washington state citizens who signed petitions in order to repeal the state’s same-sex partner law through the ballot.

There are obvious implications for the Prop 8 battle here in California, about which F&H’s Joe Mathews has recently offered his opinions. The Constitutional discussion is one about defining “political speech”, and whether it should be private or public, but the political discussion is one about intimidation and the aforementioned “norm to conform”.

The Times interviewed Aaron Toleos, co-founder of the Boston-based, KnowThyNeighbor.org, but don’t let the Biblical language fool you, the effort is all about the politics of bullying. You should get to know this guy because he undoubtedly has his sights set on California. Toleos gloats, “We’ve put close to a million names [with home addresses] online” but it was his declaration to bring his tactics to Washington that engendered the lawsuit, which worked its way to the Supreme Court. So what does Toleos hope people will do with the names he posts? As he says, “We don’t ask people to go confront strangers. This is about finding someone they already know – a cousin, a friend and coworker – and having a civil dialogue.”

Right…and if you believe that you can join Joe in the delusion that the answer to the expected harassment of ballot signers can be addressed by simply “[going] after the perpetrators.” By that time, to mix metaphors, “the cow is out of the closet.” It will only take one well-publicized attack on a petition signer to have the chilling effect on signatures, activists like Toleos are hoping for.

The movement to make names and addresses public and the disingenuous reasons offered, demonstrate not only the peremptory lengths these particular gay rights supporters are willing to go to win, but when one considers the push by others for card check and its public voting provisions, one begins to wonder if “Chicago-style” politics have really pervaded the Left under the guise of “transparency”. While the Right is often derided for practicing moralistic politics, it is becoming apparent that the Left is enforcing their own “norms to conform”…to the detriment of political participation.

Pete is also Executive Director of Common Sense California, a multi-partisan organization that supports citizen participation in policymaking – his views do not necessarily represent those of CSC.