The Smokehouse of Politics
Vol. 5, No. 4, 1983, pp. 14, 16-17
If we were to measure the Reagan Administration by a “humanity index,” we would have to conclude that the politics and record of this Administration are uncaring, insensitive and inhumane. From the callous disregard of the poorest of the poor, to the increased threat of nuclear holocaust, it can be said without stretching the point that this Administration poses an ultimate threat to human life and the survival of this planet.
On the domestic front, the President’s own Budget Director admitted that “supply side” economics is nothing more than a giveaway program to reward the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Poor and middle class workers are deprived of jobs and income, home mortgages are being foreclosed, and the family structure itself is being wrecked by the nightmare of unemployment.
Some of the most enlightened policies of previous Administrations are being discarded, enriching the profits of multi-national corporations, including the Southern Company, at the expense of the health and safety of the American people. Our safety in the workplace, protection from toxic industrial wastes, the right to know what is in the food we eat, and environmental protection, are but a few of the areas of our lives which are under the direct attack of this Administration.
The economic programs of this Administration are literally killing us. They threaten the quality of life of unborn generations and the lives of our senior citizens who, despite a mild winter, have had to face the unthinkable choice of deciding whether to spend their money on food or heat. The task before us is to develop policies and programs which promote the common good and a redistribution of the resources and wealth of this nation in an equal and fair manner. We must find a way or make a way to ease the burden of high energy costs on the poor. In 1983, in modern America, people simply should not be faced with the stark choices of food or fuel. We live in the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth, and it is immoral, and an absolute sin, for any person here to be
forced to choose between giving up one necessity of life so that they can have another one. Not some people, but all of our people, should have access to all of the necessities of life, including food, shelter, health care, education, and in a modern society such as ours, transportation, communication, and an adequate access to energy.
For the most part, Southern utilities have shown very little interest in how their rate hikes and their total operation affect the quality of life of poor people.
In spite of the lack of utility involvement in programs to help the poor, there are a number of actions which utilities could undertake to help ease the impact of rising energy costs. An example of the few utilities which have pursued progressive energy conservation programs demonstrate two main points: first, that utility involvement in conservation programs can work, and second, that public pressure is necessary to implement the programs and make sure that they work properly.
To be successful in stopping rate increases, we must have a grassroots organizing effort as well as legal intervention. Public utility commissions are political bodies and they respond politically. We must approach our rate cases in a political manner.
We need to take the offensive in working with public utility commissions. Rather than simply reacting to a rate hike request, we need to begin petitioning the utility commissions to implement progressive policies and require these to be adopted by the utilities. It is clear from past history that utilities will not adopt progressive programs voluntarily, but only when they are pushed into it.
We need to increase our involvement in the overall political process. We need to run candidates for office and get actively involved in electing candidates for utility commissions, for state legislatures and for city and county commissions. These other bodies all play a major role in the political process of rate-making, and we must gain power in them. Our power and impact will be a function of our ability to play a significant role in putting people in office.
I want to thank Commissioner Jim Buck Ross for allowing me into the state. You know as agriculture commissioners, among our many duties is to regulate the various pests. I think it says a lot of him that he let a Texan come in and he didn’t even dip me at the border.
Now I’m not going to give you a long speech, but I do want to share some general thoughts on three subjects: public policy, power and politics–which is really three ways of saying exactly the same thing. Public policy is shaped by power. We’re not shaping public policy right now because we’re not in power, because we’ve not been paying enough attention to politics. That’s the importance of what we did in the state of Texas last year.
Who’s got the power? You go out there and talk with one of those raw-boned ranchers in West Texas. You talk with him about going to the auction where’s he getting fifty-five cents a pound for his beef, and then going into town to the Safeway where they charge him $3.93 for the same beef. Who’s got the power there? And you talk with people living on social security who can’t pay their light bill because the electric company is building a nuclear plant and charging in advance for the electricity. So who’s got the power there?
Where are we going to get our energy? Now the industry knows where they want to get it. They want to get it from the nuclear source. And, because they happen to be in power at the moment, that’s where they’re getting it. They don’t want to mess with renewable resources of energy and they don’t want to mess with conservation because they don’t put much money in their pockets. Even though these systems make not only good sense, but probably the best sense.
In a state like Texas, we’ve got more sun and wind than we know what to do with. They’re constants in our lives. For people in Lubbock, on the High Plains, twenty mile per hour winds mean a calm day. Out there they say if your hat blows off, don’t bother chasing it, just turn around and there’ll be a better one coming along. We live with the wind there, so why don’t we use it? Well, the reason is because we’ve not put enough into politics.
Power doesn’t give itself up. You’ve got to go take it. “Liberty is not given, it is taken.” A friend of mine says, “If you want some ham, by God, go into the smokehouse.” Like I said in my campaign, if we got together and went into that smokehouse of politics, instead of coming out with an old, salty slab of fatback, for a change we were going to come out with a whole hog. And that’s what we did. We sliced off some of the sweetest meat of Texas politics. We got the governorship, the agriculture commission, the treasurer’s office, and attorney general’s office and the land commissioner’s office. We had a sweep in our state senate. That’s a mighty good feeling.
Having done it, we’ve got to perform. That’s the hardest part. That’s the chore we’re now facing, the battle that we’re making in Texas and the battle that you’ll be making.
In Texas, we’ve now got four or five good people elected to statewide offices. We all sit on something call TENRAC, Texas Energy and Natural Resources Advisory Council, which is an energy policy-making body, heretofore big oil–Exxon and Mobil. Now we have a chance to allocate some research monies in a different way, to pursue a different sort of development strategy. We can deal with water not by hauling a glacier down from Alaska and melting it on the High Plains, but by conservation systems.
Let’s look at a few utility issues–the automatic fuel adjustment clause for example. I understand that here in I Mississippi, a utility company can post a bond and they go
ahead and build a plant or pay executives a higher salary than they’re getting, then charge it to the consumer. I call that a fool adjustment clause.
The whole issue of rate structure is the sacred cow for the industry. The first priority of most utility commissions in the United States is to increase the return on investments of the shareholders. In Texas, that runs on the average of well above fifteen percent. They’re out there fighting any tampering with the rate structure such as “lifeline” or any graduated rate structure. Instead they want to offer us charity. Now the utility companies are coming out with a system in which consumers have a voluntary check-off of one dollar added to their monthly utility bill to pay for poor people’s bills. Instead of having a fair rate structure. We’re not upsetting them any. We’ve got to go fight for fair rate structure.
Some of you are from Louisiana. You might have heard of Earl Long over there. One time, Earl told about the rich man who died and went to the pearly gates demanding to get in. Of course, you don’t just go through the pearly gates. There’s a clerk out front and Saint Peter’s sitting back there rendering judgment.
Well, the clerk’s looking over this man’s life story. He says, “Lord have mercy, I don’t see how in the world you think you’re going to get through here, you never did no good to nobody.”
The rich man said, “Oh, now wait a minute. Back in 1925, I gave a nickel to a blind beggarman.”
The clerk said, “That’s very generous of you, but it’s certainly not good enough to come in.”
He said, “Yes, but in 1935, a widow woman needed cab fare home, and I tossed her a nickel.”
The clerk said, “Well, that’s good too, but it doesn’t make up for a life of leisure.”
The rich man said, “Yes, but I’ve got a consistent pattern of giving. In 1945, I went by that Salvation Army Christmas bucket and put another nickel in there.”
The clerk turned to Saint Peter, and said, “What in heaven’s name are we going to do?”
And Saint Peter said, “Give him back his fifteen cents and tell him to go to hell.”
These people want to offer us welfare programs. We’re not interested in welfare. We are interested in fair rate structures. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking utilities or food prices or bank policies or whatever. The central issue is fairness. Too few people have all the money and power. They’re using that money against you and me every chance they get. What are we going to do about it? Well, it’s very simple. We’ve just got two choices: to lay back or to fight back.
We’ve got to fight back. That’s what we’ve begun to do in Texas and I see that’s what you’re doing here. I believe we fight back mostly through politics. Our lives are in our politics. I grew up in North Central Texas, in Sam Rayburn’s old country up there, old time Populist country. They had a saying up there: “the water won’t ever clear up until you get the hogs out of the creek.” Hogs just don’t waddle out of the creek, you’ve got to shove them out. You’ve got to take some sticks to them. And that’s what we’ve got to do. When I say we, I mean all of us. It’s got to be a unified effort: working families, poor people, old people, family farmers, ranchers, small business people. We got to get together again, put our shoulders together and push those hogs out of the creek. And that means you’ve got to take your politics directly to the people.
When I first went back to talk politics in Texas, I found liberals hanging around holding small meetings in very, very small rooms. Wringing their hands and saying, “Lord have mercy, what are we going to do?”
“My friends,” I told them, “you’ve got to go to the people. You’ve got to talk not just to the bean sprout eaters. You’ve got to get out and put that coalition together.”
And, not only do you have to go out to the people, you’ve got to go to them on the issues and don’t flinch.
When I was running for railroad commissioner, I was told “You can’t go out to West Texas and talk to those farmers. They have gas wells on their land and they identify with the gas company. They’re going to think you’re somebody off Mars talking about how bad the gas companies are.”
I went on out and I did talk about the gas companies and I found out it wasn’t any trouble at all. Why was that? Because those farmers were selling gas to the companies at one price and buying it back, the same gas–for their irrigation pumps–at three times the price they sold it for. Pretty easy economic message to get across to them.
I’ll just leave you with this thought, a theme that I ran upon this time. I stole the advertising slogan of a moving company over in Austin: “If we can get it a-loose, we can move it.” Well, we got it loose.
From the conference, “The South’s Poor and Utility Issues,” held earlier this year in Jackson, Mississippi, we present excerpts from. the observations of Atlanta City Councilman John Lewis and Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Jim Hightower.