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Robert Reich: The Freedom To Freeze – OpEd

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Texas’s prevailing social Darwinism was expressed most succinctly last week by the mayor of Colorado City, who accused his constituents – trapped in near sub-zero temperatures and complaining about lack of heat, electricity, and drinkable water – of being the “lazy” products of a “socialist government,” adding “I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout!” and predicting “only the strong will survive and the weak will perish.”

Texas has the third-highest number of billionaires in America, most of them oil tycoons. Its laissez-faire state energy market delivered a bonanza to oil and gas producers that managed to keep production going during the freeze. It was “like hitting the jackpot,” boasted president of Comstock Resources on an earnings call. Jerry Jones, billionaire owner of the Dallas Cowboys, holds a majority of Comstock’s shares.

But most other Texans were marooned. Some did perish.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the flow of electric power, exempted affluent downtowns from outages – leaving the thriving parts of Austin, Dallas, and Houston brightly lit while pushing less affluent precincts into the dark and cold.

Like the poor across America and much of the world, poor Texans are getting hammered by climate change. Many inhabit substandard homes, lacking proper insulation. The very poor occupy trailers or tents, or camp out in their cars. Lower-income communities also are located close to refineries and other industrial sites that release added pollutants when they shut or restart.

In Texas, for-profit energy companies have no incentive to prepare for extreme weather or maintain spare capacity. Even when they’re able to handle surges in demand, prices go through the roof and poorer households are hit hard. That’s what’s happened in the wake of the deep freeze. If they can’t pay, they’re cut off.

Rich Texans take spikes in energy prices in their stride. If the electric grid goes down, private generators kick in. In a pinch – as last week – they check into hotels or leave town. As millions of his constituents remained without power and heat, Senator Ted Cruz flew to Cancun, Mexico for a family vacation. Their Houston home was “FREEZING,” as his wife put it.

Climate change and income are together splitting Americans by class more profoundly than Americans are split by politics. Yet the white working class has been seduced by conservative Republicans and Trump cultists, of which Texas has an abundance, into believing that what’s good for Black and Latino people is bad for them, and that whites are, or should be, on the winning side of the social Darwinian contest.  

White grievance helps keep Republicans in power, protecting their rich patrons from a majority that might otherwise join together to demand what they need – such heat and drinking water.

Lower-income Texans, white as well as Black and Latino, are taking it on the chin in many other ways. Texas is one of the few states that hasn’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, leaving the share of Texans without health insurance twice the national average, the largest uninsured population of any state. Texas has double the national average of children in poverty and a higher rate of unemployment than the nation’s average.

And although Texans have suffered multiple natural disasters stemming from climate change, Texas Republicans are dead set against a Green New Deal that would help reduce the horrific impacts.  

Last Wednesday, Texas Governor Greg Abbott went on Fox News to proclaim, absurdly, that what happened to his state “shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States.” Abbott blamed the power failure on the fact that “wind and solar got shut down.”

Rubbish. The loss of power from frozen coal-fired and natural gas plants was six times larger than the dent caused by frozen wind turbines. Texans froze because deregulation and a profit-driven free market created an electric grid utterly unprepared for climate change.

In Texas, tycoons are the only winners from climate change. Everyone else is losing badly. Adapting to extreme weather is necessary but it’s no substitute for cutting emissions, which Texas is loath to do. Not even the Lone Star State should protect the freedom to freeze.

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Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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