What if you were to own your own power com­pany?

Antelope Valley Press (Sunday) - - Opinion -

About 40 years ago, a right-wing codger named Ed­die Chiles be­came a mo­men­tary po­lit­i­cal celebrity in my state by buy­ing air­time on hun­dreds of ra­dio sta­tions to broad­cast his daily po­lit­i­cal rants. Hav­ing made a for­tune in the Texas oil fields, he pitched him­self as a rags-to-riches, self-made suc­cess story. “I’m Mad Ed­die,” as he was known, re­peat­edly pro­claimed that he was “mad” about big gov­ern­ment — par­tic­u­larly fed­eral pro­grams that taxed him to help poor peo­ple, who should help them­selves by be­com­ing oil en­trepreneur­s like him. It’s sim­ple, he in­structed in the tagline to his tirades: “If you don’t own an oil well, get one.”

Well, maybe you can’t af­ford an oil well, but what if you could own some­thing even big­ger — an en­tire elec­tric util­ity? What if you were to con­trol an en­ergy busi­ness that’s also an eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment engine and a grass­roots force for ad­vanc­ing so­cial jus­tice? You wouldn’t own it all by your­self, but you would in­deed be a full-fledged owner, with a voice on ev­ery­thing from hir­ing to set­ting rates, from green en­ergy to com­mu­nity in­vest­ment.

This em­pow­er­ing pop­ulist pos­si­bil­ity has qui­etly ex­isted for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans since 1937, when then-Pres­i­dent Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt’s New Deal helped peo­ple cre­ate a vast net­work of mem­ber-owned and mem­ber-run ru­ral elec­tric co­op­er­a­tives, or RECs. While the barons of cor­po­rate-owned util­i­ties ser­viced densely pop­u­lated, easy-to-wire cities, they ig­nored ru­ral ar­eas as un­prof­itable, leav­ing fam­i­lies, busi­nesses, schools and com­mu­ni­ties lit­er­ally in the dark. Co-op own­er­ship of­fered a bridge across this ru­ral gap in our coun­try’s vi­tal in­fra­struc­ture — and the peo­ple rushed to cross it. Be­fore the New Deal, some 90% of farm fam­i­lies had no elec­tric­ity. By 1953, just 16 years later, more than 90% of them were wired, open­ing ru­ral Amer­ica to a world of new eco­nomic, so­cial and cul­tural op­por­tu­ni­ties.

Co-op elec­tric­ity has trans­formed ru­ral Amer­ica, but the co-ops of­fer some­thing even more elec­tri­fy­ing: demo­cratic power.

By law, ev­ery house­hold that uses the elec­tric­ity is a mem­ber and can vote for a Board that has ac­tual de­ci­sion-mak­ing au­thor­ity to con­trol re­sources in­clud­ing cash flow, good jobs, a cus­tomer base, fa­cil­i­ties and fi­nan­cial acu­men. More­over, un­like the cor­po­rate ethic of share­holder supremacy (in which max­i­miz­ing prof­its of in­vestor elites reigns supreme), these de­cen­tral­ized, grass­roots util­i­ties were guided by an egal­i­tar­ian ethic for­mu­lated in 1937: the seven Rochdale Prin­ci­ples of co­op­er­a­tive or­ga­ni­za­tion:

• Vol­un­tary and open mem­ber­ship. • Demo­cratic mem­ber con­trol.

• Mem­bers’ eco­nomic par­tic­i­pa­tion.

• Au­ton­omy and in­de­pen­dence.

• Ed­u­ca­tion, train­ing and in­for­ma­tion. • Co­op­er­a­tion among co­op­er­a­tives. • Con­cern for com­mu­nity.

With such a po­tent com­bi­na­tion of power and prin­ci­ples — later ex­panded to in­clude anti-dis­crim­i­na­tion, fi­nan­cial fair­ness and other com­po­nents — RECs can be a mighty force for help­ing ru­ral Amer­i­cans make broad-based so­cial progress. In­deed, in the past 30 years, some RECs have for­mally ex­panded their of­fi­cial pur­pose from sim­ply pro­vid­ing elec­tric­ity to also in­vest­ing in such com­mu­nity needs as so­lar power, high-speed in­ter­net and fi­nanc­ing for con­ser­va­tion retrofits.

De­spite the strength and pop­u­lar ap­peal of the co-op ap­proach, RECs in re­gions where they are large and numer­ous (the South, Mid­west and Plains) have hardly been mod­els of dy­namic progress. Even when they face stag­nant economies and wide­spread poverty, many co-ops charge ex­or­bi­tant rates and cling to a toxic legacy of coal-fired power plants spew­ing pol­lu­tants.

What hap­pened? In ef­fect, these co-ops got taken over by closed net­works of en­trenched ru­ral power (bankers, real es­tate de­vel­op­ers, ag-biz ex­ecs, old money fam­i­lies, trusted po­lit­i­cal re­tain­ers, et al.). These in­ter­ests have steadily tight­ened their grip on these valu­able util­i­ties by us­ing their fi­nan­cial power, so­cial stand­ing and le­gal cun­ning to dom­i­nate board elec­tions.

Once in, these boards throw Rochdale prin­ci­ples out the win­dow. Pro­fes­sional man­agers slide the de­ci­sion-mak­ing and co-op books be­hind closed doors. In co-ops like these, the term “mem­ber” has ef­fec­tively been shriv­eled to mean pow­er­less con­sumer. Thus, shut out of the govern­ing cir­cle, mem­bers lose the will to par­tic­i­pate, leav­ing the co-op a hol­lowed-out shell of its big demo­cratic idea. A 2016 sur­vey by the In­sti­tute for Lo­cal Self-Re­liance found that 72% of Amer­ica’s REC Board di­rec­tors were elected by less than 10% of mem­bers.

But as a co-op mem­ber, you do have a voice. The good folks at the New Econ­omy Coali­tion re­cently re­leased their Ru­ral Elec­tric Co­op­er­a­tive Tool­kit with re­sources for mem­ber-own­ers seek­ing to re­assert the demo­cratic prin­ci­ples on which their co-ops were founded. The NEC works for an econ­omy “that meets hu­man needs, en­hances the qual­ity of life, and al­lows us to live in bal­ance with na­ture.” Doesn’t that sound good? Check them out: newe­con­omy.net.

Pop­ulist au­thor, pub­lic speaker and ra­dio com­men­ta­tor Jim Hightower writes “The Hightower Low­down,” a monthly news­let­ter chron­i­cling the on­go­ing fights by Amer­ica’s or­di­nary peo­ple against rule by plu­to­cratic elites.

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