CNBCfix review, ‘Liquid Assets’:
Is Michelle Caruso-Cabrera
aiming to privatize water?

          Posted: Sunday, October 3, 2010

Most people think the world has enough problems already.

CNBC's Michelle Caruso-Cabrera is happy to propose a new one.

Caruso-Cabrera's "Liquid Assets" seems at best meant to fill a quota of environmental-based programming and at worst, a dubious proponent of privatizing water markets.

This is one of television's most outspoken champions of the free market softly or indirectly questioning what's quite possibly — very possibly — the most successful government program ever: Clean water.

Based on this program, it feels like government wins.

It's notable that "Liquid Assets," according to its credits, falls under CNBC "business news," rather than the usual "long-form programming" of much of the network's nighttime documentaries. This puts it under the same umbrella as popular topical hits "House of Cards" and "Marijuana Inc." But "Liquid Assets" feels no more urgent than "Trash Inc.," a network long-form effort helmed by Carl Quintanilla that also premiered last week.

The "Liquid Assets" opening narration claims water is "in the midst of a full-blown crisis." Caruso-Cabrera later calls that "conventional wisdom." But the key comment comes from former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, who says, "There's no crisis."

Curiously, in the crucial opening 10 minutes, Caruso-Cabrera starts with an Alaska town, Sitka, that has so much water it's eager to sell it for $95 million, but not enough — or any — interested buyers. "They're dreaming," says expert Peter Gleick, who notes it's simply cheaper for the Middle East to desalinate than import water from Alaska, and far more profitable for tankers to haul oil.

Next is a stop in Milwaukee, where Mayor Tom Barrett is trying to sell companies on the city because of its ample water supply. But apparently it's not being used enough, as he says the system is only "at 30% capacity."

It's not until after the first commercial break, 17 minutes into the program, that an actual problem is identified — an avocado grower dealing with rising costs of water from the Colorado River. Caruso-Cabrera notes, "Agriculture consumes 80% of the world's fresh water. It always has."

The grower, Al Stehly, blames subdivisions and the amount of people, but we later learn from Nevada water official Pat Mulroy that the bigger culprit apparently is an extraordinarily long-running drought.

And Caruso-Cabrera later says Stehly actually only pays about a penny a gallon. "He knows it's a relative bargain."

Those looking to find human beings dying of thirst might expect to see Caruso-Cabrera somewhere in Africa or Southeast Asia. Instead, she goes to Chile, which boasts the driest place on earth but also a nationwide water market in which rights to most reservoirs are for sale.

What Caruso-Cabrera does not reveal, for understandable reasons, is that in her daytime role as a CNBC host/pundit, she is perhaps the most rigid free-market/privatization advocate on television. Here, her analysis of the Chilean system is fair to both the winners and the losers. Babbitt tells her such a market mechanism could help the American West but then acknowledges the obvious reality in the U.S., Chile, or anywhere else: It all comes down to politics.

This production is a little scattershot, and Caruso-Cabrera does not offer the explicit conclusion she probably should: It's simply not cost-effective to move surplus water around to areas with shortages. So if you live too far away, you're out of luck.

Of course, there is the dreaded segment on bottled water. For whatever reason, this phenomenon irritates many. Bruce Babbitt in fact finds it "mostly a scam." The amount of plastic bottles we produce is undeniably a legitimate concern. The question is whether those bottles would be consumed regardless. The pundits on the program, including comedian Lewis Black, who is given ample time, believe people are merely picking bottled water over tap water ("People are increasingly afraid of their tap water" is the first response from bottled water author Peter Gleick), as opposed to water over Coca-Cola. Caruso-Cabrera curiously fails to defend capitalism here and finds "irony" in people purchasing a product they can essentially get for free. (Except she fails to note, it's not really free, it's produced by tax dollars.)

The real irony is that Caruso-Cabrera is not advocating what seems obvious: Shouldn't strapped municipalities sell their own bottled water?

If they are producing a product of the same quality as bottled water, then they should be able to sell their own bottles of it for the same price as retail brands. Certainly this way money would go to governments instead of beverage giants. Unless the water really isn't as good or refreshing, justifying the purported rationale for buying bottled.

At a minimum, one would think a free-market defender like Caruso-Cabrera would be expressing praise rather than skepticism for the bottled water industry, as an example of privatization trumping government, which theoretically is shortchanging itself and its taxpayers by underpricing a critical asset. Consider what Caruso-Cabrera would say about McDonald's if she were to find a hamburger joint that produces (patents notwithstanding) an identical Big Mac it is able to sell for $8. The argument would be that capitalism works, that cities don't have the marketing/distribution skills of a private beverage company to adequately sell their product for profit.

If the bottled-water market represents a government lapse, it can be forgiven. Caruso-Cabrera misses a chance to explain the phenomenal history of water purification. Out of all the services government provides, clean water is probably No. 1, the linchpin of the most developed societies. Without it, diseases would undoubtedly be rampant and life in big cities would be dicey.

We take it for granted, no question. Maybe government isn't perfect at distributing water. Maybe it doesn't charge enough. It's still one of the best bargains we've ever had. A "full-blown crisis"? Forget it, Jake — that's Chinatown.

"Liquid Assets: The Big Business of Water" (2010)

Featuring: Garry White, Keith Perkins, Peter Gleick, Tom Barrett, J. Val Klump, Andy Smits, Al Stehly, Pat Mulroy, Raymond Guerra, Maureen Stapleton, Ralph Strahm, Brian Brady, Bruce Babbitt, Kim Marotta, Ed Begley Jr., Andy Moschea, Sandra Vilches-Brevis, Claudia Viancos, Francisco Estay, Maria De La Luz Domper, Wenonah Hauter, Matias Desmadryl, Miguel Paradesuarez, Lewis Black, Joseph Doss, Michael Bellas

Host: Michelle Caruso-Cabrera
Executive producer: Sanford Cannold
Senior producer: Justin Solomon
Producer: Molly Mazilu
Coordinating producer: Samantha Wright
Editors: Diana Costantino, Dave Gross
Lead camera: Alejandro Herrera
Additional camera: Plummer Crawley, Victor Calderin, Mike Vaughn, Gerald Miller, Bill Irmscher, Pat Pugliese, Dieter Melhorn, Mark Neuling, Mark Thalman, Afshin Javodi, Dan Garcia
Audio: Torence Brown, Tony Stewart, Jason Quinn
Designer/animator: Keith Kyak
Senior designer/animator: Jacqueline Dessel
Creative director: Victoria Todis
Tape archive producer: Tom Dunphy
Chile field producer: Francisco Ginesta
Digital post production, manager: Vito Tattoli
Chief photographer: Angel Perez
Senior vice president, business news: Jeremy Pink

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