Upstream battle

Jim Hightower promotes disobedience in Sacramento

Courtesy of Jim Hightower

Muckraking columnist and author Jim Hightower is coming to Sacramento’s Coloma Community Center on Friday, April 11. He’s on a nationwide tour, promoting his new book, Swim Against the Current: Even a Dead Fish can Go with the Flow.

The one-time presidential candidate, and two term Texas Agriculture Commissioner, has become something of a progressive institution, with books like Thieves in High Places,; and his weekly syndicated columns. His new book focuses on the good guy for a change—from environmentalist evangelicals, to organic farmers to unionized strippers—all the ordinary folks who inspired Hightower with their “enterprising, maverick and disobedient spirit.”

We’re big fans of his stuff here at SN&R, so this was a good excuse to get him on the phone.

As you travel and talk to people, are you hearing anything surprising?

Yeah, optimism. People are pumped up. They believe that change is possible. And I don’t mean change as a political buzzword, like the pundits use it. But real change of policy—on Iraq, on the environment, what I call the “tinkle-down” economics system we’ve got.

People believe it’s possible—they’re not naive about it, they don’t believe that a president is going to get it done. But they think that this process, with millions of new people participating fortells a change in the political dynamic in Washington, that would allow the people’s voice to become an effective counter to the lobbyists’ power.

So, this optimism has to do with the presidential election?

One reason is the presidential elections, where there is a strong sense that the Democrats might not even be able to screw it up. Secondly, that congressional seats and down the ballot are going to be won by even more progressive candidates than Clinton or Obama.

You’re an Obama guy, and a lot of progressives are supporting him. But I’ve never quite been able to figure out, based on his policy positions, that he’s that much more progressive than Clinton is.

He’s not. You won’t get it on policy positions, issue by issue. But that’s not really what his campaign is about, I think.

It’s very weird for me to be saying this, because I’m a very issue-oriented person—but this is more about hope, to use his own word. People believing that they could matter again in politics.

While his particular positions need strengthening, substantial strengthening, in terms of progressive policies, he seems to be the one who is not locked in to the old ways and to the old guard. I’m talking about the Democratic old guard here. People feel that he wouldn’t go in with the same old democratic operatives, and he wouldn’t go in with just the special interests. Rather the people themselves, outsiders, would be a force in his administration.

You know, I compare it to 1932, which was another moment of hope in the midst of despair. Roosevelt didn’t campaign on the New Deal. There was no New Deal. He was simply the hope of millions of people who were fed up with Hooverism and Coolidge and the Melon financial regime.

Change came when he was in the White House; one, because Eleanor was in the White House, a very strong progressive. And two, a bunch of folks, strong labor leaders who had strong visions of what could be done, came in, too. And we had mayors and governors who had been experimenting at the local level with reforms dealing with the Depression. All of that came inside with Roosevelt. That created the New Deal, not him. In fact, much of the New Deal had to overcome his reluctance. He became more progressive than he was.

That’s what I see young people thinking, that Obama can be made more progressive than he is. I like to say that the significant thing about the “Obama phenomena” is not Obama, it’s the phenomena.

This book is a little different for you. You’ve always skewered the bad guys, but this one is more about highlighting the good guys.

People ask me how I can have any optimism. But I see a very different America than my friends in Washington. I travel a lot, and I encounter these ordinary folks who are doing these important things in business and politics and health care and banking and all sorts of areas. I take great hope from their enterprising, maverick and disobedient spirit. To me, that’s what America’s all about. It’s still there, it just doesn’t get much coverage. These folks are not the exception anymore. This is a drive for change that has been building in the countryside for a number of years now. The good news is that there is a demand for change. The better news is that there are models for change that have been developed by folks out there. So it gives us great hope.

So you see some opening up in some of these business structures, these political structures, that wasn’t there before?

Yeah, a good example is the “good food” economy. I’m talking about organic or sustainable production. People on their own, small farmers, food artisans, cheese makers, wine makers, bakers and consumers have built their own economy, underneath and now rising up within the larger economy. This was not done by any politician, or by any corporate outfit. It really has been built from the grassroots. This is a remarkable development in the face of policies that make it very difficult. And in the face of corporate power that would knock it down.

So, when you’re traveling so much, how do you avoid all the bad food, the McDonalds, etc.?

A lot of these cities I’ve been to before, and the people I work with know I don’t want to go to McDonald’s. And people are very generous in making sure I have a six-pack of local beer wherever I go.

You talk about clean elections and public financing of elections in your book. We have a public financing law here in Sacramento. It’s totally dead. None of the candidates uses it.

If you actually have it on the books, what aren’t you using it? When I get to Sacramento, I’ll have to find out a little more about what’s going on there.

In most places I go, I would talk about [public financing]. First, I’d get sort of puzzled looks. Then people would be impressed by the stories I would tell about the successful efforts. I’m making the point that they could do this themselves. They don’t have to wait on Washington or even the state capitol. They could do this themselves in their own cities.

Sometimes I hear, “I don’t want to take the public’s money to run my campaign.” Not using public financing is supposed to be the virtuous thing to do.

Well, that’s just a dodge. Sometimes in these fights, the oppositions says, “We can’t be giving our tax dollars to politicians.” But of course, we give all of our tax dollars to polticians. They allocate it then on the basis of who gave them money. If it was our money, they might allocate it a little more in the public interest.

What is missing from the coverage, and the political response to the housing downturn and the economic problems that go with it?

One thing that’s missing is the unasked question: Why do we need so many subprime mortgages? The answer, of course, is that we’ve spent three decades knocking down the middle class. And we been undermining the wages of people, so folks are not making enough money to be able to afford to buy houses. The second reason is that we quit building affordable housing. I’m sure it’s true in Sacramento; certainly where I live in Austin, developers were out there building houses like crazy, but they are a half a million dollars and up. They’re not out there building houses for a schoolteacher making $29,000 a year. You know, I don’t want to live in a city with just folks who are making $100,000 and up.

So then what’s your alternative to the Washington stimulus package—those $600 checks?

Well, that $600 is going to do a beautiful job of stimulating the Chinese economy. The highest role of citizenship, according to Bush, is to go shopping. Well, folks are going to go shopping, and whether its Wal-Mart or Neiman Marcus, an extraordinary number of the goods in there are from China and other low-wage parts of the world. So our expenditures are not going to create a single job in our country. It’s supposed to stimulate spending, so Wal-Mart will report better figures, but it’s not going to spread into the grassroots economy.

My alternative is to launch a massive program of investment in our infrastructure. It’s rebuilding schools and bridges and roads and rebuilding our water and sewer systems and upgrading our internet service and general investing in our future. We’re trillions of dollars in arrears on repairs to our national house. It would also be putting millions of people to work at good wages, and the money would be spread all across the country. Not just put into the hands of the Bentonville billionaires, the owners of Wal-Mart.

But is that going to give us the immediate benefit? The stimulus package is being sold as an immediate shot in the arm.

We could go to New Orleans now. We know what needs to be done there, but the money isn’t there. We could go there with a crash program and hire tens of thousands of people in that area, and put folks to work immediately. That would generate immediate economic activity, because those folks are going to be spending the money in that area. We could do the same thing with green-collar jobs. Let’s put a mass program together on conservations, retrofitting every building in America for conservation purposes. That would do more for energy independence than any single other thing we could do.

But a big chunk of this is longer term stimulus. It’s a restoration, not just stimulus of our economy. And it’s at the level where it’s needed, at the grassroots.