Friday, December 17, 2010

Give 'em Hell, Schutze

Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer is the best thing going in Dallas journalism. (I did say Dallas, not the suburbs, where Schutze's perspective is sometimes cockeyed. And I didn't say north Texas, where even old columns by Molly Ivins, now dead and gone, are still the sharpest writing around. But Schutze rules Dallas journalism.) He does the old-fashioned legwork, digs out the facts, takes nothing at face value, especially the self-serving statements of politicians, then writes up the story, pulling no punches. Exhibit A: Schutze's description of the Texas Railroad Commission:

"the Railroad Commission is a sleazy rogue body without an ounce of moral or political credibility that cannot be trusted to protect the public."

Ouch. After the jump, what led Schutze to that conclusion.

Read these articles to find out what's behind Schutze's criticism of the Texas Railroad Commission:

How does the public end up with this kind of government? You know, the kind that isn't of the people, by the people and for the people and all that. It's not for a lack of democracy. Members of the Texas Railroad Commission are elected directly by voters. Maybe it's because of too much democracy. Voters directly elect more offices than they can keep track of. Voters don't know enough to make informed decisions. Can you name any of the railroad commissioners? I can't, even just after reading the articles above. Can you cite anything the commission has done? Are you even sure about the responsibilities of the job? And yet you and I hire and fire these commissioners at the ballot box every election. Is it any surprise that the electorate can be fooled into electing a Texas Railroad Commission that works against the public interest? Here's my latest hypothesis on how we got to this point.

In general, liberals want to use government to defend the little guy (individual consumers) against the big guy (oil and gas industry). A century ago that attitude led to great successes by government against exploitation of workers, poor working conditions, child labor, unhealthful food, unsafe drugs, and even against those monopolistic practices of 19th century railroad robber barons in Texas. Over time, government itself became a big guy. Ronald Reagan convinced conservatives that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." There may have been just enough truth to the claim that conservatives quit trusting government for anything. That has left industry largely unchecked. Even as the oil and gas industry is doing harm to the public safety and to the public's pocketbooks, voters rotely reject a solution available to them -- electing Railroad Commission members who would effectively regulate the industry -- because that would require government to exercise power, and power is not something Texans trust government with. Moreover, industry has the ability to funnel money into elections to keep electing candidates who keep demonizing government, thus perpetuating the cycle and ensuring industry is left free to continue ignoring the health, safety and financial interests of the public.

New evidence supporting this hypothesis, at least in the banking industry, comes this week from Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), the incoming chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. He told The Birmingham News, "In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks." Voters elected Bachus in spite of his support of the banks over government regulators (or perhaps because of). Voters really must have soured on government if they think that government in alliance with banks is going to protect their interests better than government independent of banks would. My contention is that similar antipathy towards government is what leads Texas voters to elect a Railroad Commission that does the bidding of the oil and gas industry.

To restore balance, one of two things must happen, neither very cheery. For one, matters would have to deteriorate enough for voters to set aside their antipathy towards government. This Great Recession would have to turn into another Great Depression, maybe. The other possibility is for voters old enough to remember Ronald Reagan to eventually die off, much like voters who remembered FDR eventually died off. A generation ago, the electorate forgot the lessons of the Great Depression and opened the door for Ronald Reagan to set in motion the supply-side, tax-cutting, deregulation fervor that led to the mess we're in now. It could take another generational turnover to restore balance.

Like I said, neither alternative is particularly cheery. In the meantime, in Dallas we still have Jim Schutze. That's consolation.

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