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What if you were to own your own power company?

Jim Hightower on

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.

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