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A Tour of Fred Stafford Writing, 2020-2021
Revisiting my (still small) body of work, for those who've only come across individual pieces.
If you’re familiar with me, Fred Stafford, you might recognize that I’ve written some interesting — some might say, very interesting — articles about the politics of decarbonization, electric power, utilities, and the New Deal. My goal with this writing has been to present an old-fashioned socialist political perspective, rooted in labor, production, and public goods, as an alternative to what one usually finds from progressives and socialists when it comes to decarbonization.
Instead of occasionally tweeting links, I figured it was time to write up a list, or tour, of my published articles to make it easier for people to become familiar with them going forward, along with some editorial context on what I found interesting in each.
This first part of the tour below includes my four articles published in 2020 and 2021, on topics ranging from the Tennessee Valley Authority and the New Deal to the Texas electrical grid. Subscribe to Public Power Review to stay updated for the next batch!
Want a Green New Deal? Start by Protecting the Tennessee Valley Authority (Jacobin, May 2020)
“The Tennessee Valley Authority is one of the New Deal’s greatest achievements: a publicly owned utility with a large, unionized workforce right in the heart of America. But now it’s under threat.”
My first published article, both a call to arms for the progressive world to pay attention to the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a report on an ongoing labor dispute there. 200 union IT workers’ jobs were being outsourced to global multinational contractors during the early days of the pandemic.
Thanks to the union’s efforts, the dispute got sympathetic attention from local news in Tennessee. Once I learned of it and spoke to the president of the union about it (whom I’d already been in touch with to talk about the union’s attitudes on nuclear power), I passed the news along to a friend from the Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaigns to shine a national spotlight on it. That then reached the journalist Rachel Cohen, whose very solid report on the dispute went up at The Intercept the same day as my own, and from then on it received national attention (and at least a social media condemnation from Bernie).
A big idea I wanted to convey was the cognitive dissonance between actual union industrial workers and the ecological politics of the left.
[D]espite the popularity of the Green New Deal, the unionized workers at the TVA haven’t heard a thing from progressive activists.
“Our union Local hasn’t heard from any,” says Gay Henson, a longtime employee of the TVA and president of the TVA Engineering Association (IFPTE Local 1937). And the union is looking for all the help it can get.
It’s a divide between a younger activist set and an older (and offline) unionized workforce deep in the heart of Red State America. And if it’s not bridged soon, it spells disaster not only for the TVA but for the Green New Deal itself.
Naturally I drew the discussion toward a particular energy technology that inspires very strong opinions:
When asked how we can bridge the gap between, on the one hand, a youthful Left committed to the politics of Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and a Green New Deal, and on the other hand, the energy workers and their unions, Henson had one piece of advice in particular. One that will be hard for many — if not most — activists to hear.
“Nuclear power is a major part of that gap,” she said.
I’m pleased that, as of November 2022, my article is still linked from the union’s webpage.
How Trump Got His Right-Wing New Deal Victory (Jacobin, August 2020)
“Trump just scored a victory for workers at the Tennessee Valley Authority — but on the Right’s reactionary, anti-immigrant terms. All while the socialist left was AWOL.”
My follow-up to the earlier TVA article, this time focused on the interesting turn of events in which President Trump actually intervened to save the workers’ jobs. I’d wanted to cover the dispute further, but the article also sprang from my displeasure that none of the progressive world nor the Democratic Party (save for one Tennessee Senator) did much of anything to speak against, let alone stop, this outsourcing.
This time I interviewed a few different TVA IT workers whose jobs were on the line, like Wendy:
TVA software developer Wendy Turner, who’s worked there almost twenty years, couldn’t believe it. “I was raised in a very poor household over in the projects. I was always told that the way you get out was education. That way you can find you a job. When I got this job at TVA, it was great. Perfect opportunity to allow me a good life, take care of my kids,” said Turner. “Now they’re treating us all like we’re disposable.”
The union representing the TVA IT workers, the TVA Engineering Association (IFPTE Local 1937), organized various local protests and worked with some local activist groups and politicians to fight back against the outsourcing. But it was “an [anti-immigrant] NGO spinoff masquerading as a workers’ organization” whose advertisements about the issue — and about TVA CEO’s high pay, the highest of any federal employee — that reached the President.
At a White House event with the union, Trump declared: “Let this serve as a warning to any federally appointed board: if you betray American workers, then you will hear two simple words: ‘You’re fired.’”
Also in the article I give a left argument against the ubiquitous H-1B visa program — beloved by CEOs, often lambasted on the right for America First reasons, and also the target of Bernie Sanders’ scorn in the past — which in this case was facilitating the outsourcing of these workers’ jobs.
Millions of Texans Are Freezing Right Now — Our Deregulated Electrical Grid Is to Blame (Jacobin, February 2021)
“What Texans are suffering through is a failure of deregulation and markets — a neoliberal ideology promoted not just by the fossil-fuel-loving right, but even many environmentally conscious liberals.”
The Winter Storm Uri disaster in February 2021 caused blackouts across Texas, leading to, according to an official investigation, 246 deaths. Another estimate puts it at about 700. Days before the storm hit Texas and surrounding states, I’d already been working on a book review of Meredith Angwin’s Shorting the Grid. (See my earlier review on Amazon.) Given the direct application of the book’s analysis to the trouble facing the Texas electrical system, I decided to write about the crisis instead.
In the article I give a very, very high-level overview of how deregulation shaped the Texas electrical system (specifically, the system covering most of the state, ERCOT) and, echoing Angwin, how an increasing reliance on just-in-time production — in the form of natural gas-fueled power and of intermittent, weather-dependent renewables (wind and solar) — contributed to the crisis.
To my knowledge, I also presented the only analysis of how the state’s nuclear power plants fared in this storm, along with similar storms in 2011 and 2014 winters. In short, Texas nuclear proved quite robust in the presence of extreme conditions, and so did the nuclear reactors in the rest of the country, including neighboring states that were hit with similarly intense freezing.
However, there’s still a sign of hope in the state, and for all of us concerned with climate change: nuclear energy, the dominant source of clean energy in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Unlike natural gas and renewables, nuclear plants stockpile fuel on-site; it’s production when we need it, not “just-in-time.” […]
[O]nly one of the state’s four nuclear generation units has been knocked off-line, as a purely precautionary measure, due to freezing conditions. […] During the 2014 polar vortex, again only one of the state’s four nuclear generators went off-line, while gas plants alone amounted to almost three-quarters of lost capacity. And in 2011, during a freezing outage that almost rivaled the present case, none of the nuclear units in the state went off-line […].
In fact […], that one nuclear generator in Texas was the only one to go off-line in the past few days, among all ninety-one generators across the country that were running last week. That’s in spite of record-setting frigid temperatures all across the country, causing power outages also in the neighboring Southwestern Power Pool and Midcontinent Independent System Operator (MISO) electricity grids.
Apart from my report, other analyses I’ve seen coming from socialists and the left have focused instead on Texas not having enough renewable energy. But I’d say that’s just “electric culture war”:
Instead of grappling with the ever-increasing dependence on just-in-time natural gas and renewables, as a matter of planning production to meet society’s needs, people find a culture war to wage instead. Renewables vs. fossil fuels. “The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died,” declared Fox News’s Tucker Carlson. Instead of productive technologies that both meet social needs in particular ways with particular trade-offs to plan around, it’s one good, one bad. […]
This culture war obscures the actual challenges of production. The fossil fuels proponents don’t get (or don’t mind) that the coal and gas they hold so dear is emitting so much carbon that it causes illness and death, or that it radically alters the climate, leading to more and more extreme weather events like the present one. The renewables proponents don’t get (or don’t mind) that reshaping our electrical system to be even more dependent on that increasingly unpredictable weather is going to be a difficult pill for most people to swallow. Tell the probably millions of Texans who just survived frigid nights without power, heat, or cooking that we’re going to “electrify everything” — and with more of that renewable energy to boot. Perhaps convincing millions of Texans just isn’t even a goal for them; enlisting in the culture war is far easier.
Why the CCC is DOA (Damage, September 2021)
Sunrise’s Civilian Climate Corps is a strong proposal. It’s a shame that the class struggle orientation needed to realize it is wholly absent.
The Civilian Climate Corps proposal from the Progressive and Squad wings of the Democratic Party received mostly uncritical praise on the left. But in my estimation,
Nostalgia among highly-educated liberals for the ecological dimension of the original CCC in this case only veils the political economy that enabled it, and in turn what is possible in our current state of working-class demobilization.
In this article I laid out some examples of what made the original CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps, so fascinating and politically successful. And I paint the picture of the frustrating reality today of the NGO/nonprofit world completely cannibalizing government: instead of a muscular government that can quickly devise and execute a program as sprawling as the CCC, we increasingly have a constellation of NGOs that perform services one might instead expect from the state, all dependent on retaining government contracts and charitable contributions from the wealthy.
For further proof that the bill and its supporters don’t realize its aggressive class dimension, one can check out the CCC 2.0’s legislative announcement from Markey and Ocasio-Cortez back in April—specifically, the fact that the laundry list of endorsers at the bottom is composed of Green and “___ justice” NGOs with a near total absence of labor organizations. […]
The exact same flaw drags down the similarly NGO-laden proposal for public power from fellow Squad members Rep. Cori Bush and Rep. Jamaal Bowman. Despite the potential (and need) for a coalition with unions in utilities and power, their legislation’s endorsers include a few dozen NGOs but only a single union—public utility workers for the tiny and fundamentally distinct Puerto Rican electrical grid.
Unfortunately the track record for working with those unions from the get-go on a Green New Deal, led by the same progressive legislators and NGOs, is notoriously bad. Without more backing of unions and their memberships, and without an organized campaign outside the professional-leaning ranks of Sunrise volunteers, the CCC 2.0 proposal lacks the working-class force needed to see it through.
That covers my published articles from 2020 and 2021. In a follow-up post I will cover my articles from this year. Stay tuned! And don’t forget to subscribe to Public Power Review, a completely free outlet for this kind of writing.
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