I don’t know much about Texas. At least, not the real Texas.
But I certainly know the Texas mythology, going back to my first Davy Crockett movie when I was six years old. I also know that the Texas mythology is not inconsequential, because apparently much of the Texas electorate still buys into it. Or more likely, they’ve been sold on it.
Call it the myth of self-reliance.
It’s been passed down through generations in story, song, and John Wayne movies. It’s the myth of the rugged individualist, the free-range cowboy who goes it alone, the Marlboro Man making his own way in the world. It’s the Lone Star State, where the lone Texas Ranger single-handedly holds off a passel of Mexican banditos with one gun tied behind his back.
The myth of self-reliance is currently being exposed for the fraud it’s always been. As with all myths, this one’s basis in historical reality was suspect to begin with. And as with all myths, this one continues to be useful, especially to selfish and corrupt people with lots of money.
It’s a myth that has merged seamlessly with the more modern myths of free markets and deregulation. Which is where Republican dogma meets the current man-made catastrophe in Texas.
From an energy standpoint, Texas took “go it alone” to extremes. It opted out of the national electrical grid that might have provided it with backup power, just in case a once-in-a-century storm happened to mosey through.
But that backup — that ability to tap into the national grid in an emergency — would have dealt a blow to the collective Texas ego. It would have meant Texas subjecting itself to, OMG, regulation by the federal government.
Texas Republicans, bought and paid for by the energy industry, could never submit to such a thing. Texas is independent. Texas goes it alone. Texas relies on itself, as opposed to those nanny-state meddlers in Washington.
Of course, self-reliance is easy when you have running water, flush toilets, gas stoves, and a functional electrical grid. Lose those things and your reliance on others — and theirs on you — gets really important, really fast.
And by reliance on others, I don’t just mean your neighbors. I mean your government. Because this is what government is supposed to be for. For coming to the rescue. For keeping people from being screwed over by natural disasters, institutional idiocy, or both.
But thanks to that self-reliance myth, Texas now boasts a culture of hostility to government that never comported with reality, and still doesn’t. It does, however, comport with the attitudes and reflexes of Texas Republicans, who have for decades shown themselves to be hostile to both government and reality. Republicans have long been the party of short-term earnings over long-term planning, and Texas takes that ethos to a whole other level.
So their current predicament is a “pay-me-now-or-pay-me-later” story, updated for our new climate-challenged times. It’s a cautionary tale of deregulation gone awry, in markets where deregulation had no business in the first place.
Back when George W. Bush was governor of Texas, Republicans decided that Texas would be the perfect place to experiment with near-total deregulation of energy consumption. Taking its theoretical underpinnings from Enron — then the darling of the energy industry, now the poster child for criminal market manipulation — Texas created an unfettered marketplace where power companies could compete for customers on price.
Consumers were now free — an important word in Texas mythology — to pick and choose among these companies in search of the lowest rates they could get. If these practices had been federally regulated, they would’ve raised all sorts of questions about quality of service, network resilience, and other annoying things nobody wants to think about. But this was Texas, and while the questions might have come up, Republicans weren’t interested in the answers.
So Texas went it alone. Self-reliant consumers signed up with self-reliant companies in a self-reliant state. With so much self-reliance, what could go wrong? Or, more important, why bother to regulate?
I’m guessing most of those customers didn’t read the fine print, because it turns out those rates were adjustable. They were based on overall demand. As long as demand and supply were more or less in line, the system worked okay.
But if the supply of electricity were to collapse — as in, say, a once-in-a-century winter storm — demand would, quite predictably, go through the roof. Taking prices with it. That’s how a $200-a-month electricity bill balloons to $16,000 in one week. Which, even in Texas, tests the limits of self-reliance.
But that’s not the worst part. These same companies also had to compete on cost. If they wanted to keep their prices low enough to stay competitive with dozens of other suppliers, they needed to keep their business costs as low as possible. If they couldn’t do that, their beloved free market would eat them alive.
So there was no incentive to spend money on maintenance, or to bother with things like winterizing their equipment. And why should they? Texas doesn’t get bad winters. Except when they do.
This is why we have regulation. This is why we have government. This is why we pay taxes to enact and enforce laws that keep vital infrastructure companies from putting their own greed ahead of our health and safety. This is why we keep a close eye on essential human services. So they don’t collapse and kill us.
It’s been comical, in a tragic sort of way, to watch Republican officials fall all over themselves to deflect the blame. They blame wind turbines. They blame Democrats in general, and AOC in particular. They blame the Green New Deal, which doesn’t even exist. What happened to self-reliance?
Here’s the thing. Hundred-year climate events are clearly occurring on an accelerated schedule. What happens when they come every decade? Or every five years? In California, the wildfires seem to be happening every summer. And we’re seeing a lot more extreme weather — hot, cold, wet, dry — in a lot more places, a lot more often.
So obviously, this is not just about Texas. Texas is just a reminder of the power of bad ideas. A reminder that wanton deregulation is a dangerous, even deadly, path. That mindless hatred of government makes us all vulnerable to worst-case scenarios. That Republicans will always double down on the worst possible ideas.
And that the myth of self-reliance is long past its sell-by date.