O Big Brother, Where Art Thou?

What the new Coen Brothers movie can teach us about California's electricity woes.

For fans of bluegrass music and electoral hanky-panky, the Coen brothers' new movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, offers a hit parade for the ages. The power of demagoguery, the relationship between self-interest and racial bigotry, the idiotic points on which elections turn-all are on glorious display. But the film's most deft maneuver may be its use of the Tennessee Valley Authority as a prime plot mover: O Brothers' Depression-era protagonists are racing to recover a treasure buried on property that's about to be flooded by the TVA.

The theme of fortunes flooded under by the fabled federal energy project has a real historical antecedent in the saga of George Berry, a real estate speculator, U.S. senator from Tennessee, and National Recovery Administration official. In 1932, Berry led a group purchase of mineral and marble leases in the Clinch River valley. When the TVA moved to condemn his properties in 1933, Berry sought damages from the agency.

Arthur Morgan, the TVA's first chairman, suspected that Berry had been aware of the property's probable condemnation when he bought it; he decided that Berry was just trying to rip off the government and that such questionable ethics rendered him beneath negotiation. When his fellow board members sought conciliation with Berry, Morgan criticized them publicly, exacerbating tensions within the TVA and prompting Franklin Roosevelt to remove him as chairman in 1938, less than five years into a nine-year term.

Morgan's opposition to what he considered a federal giveaway to a well-connected government official highlights a generally unacknowledged point about the TVA: This high-minded agency, "built for the people of the United States," charged in its own charter with the economic and social well-being of the area's residents, and enshrined in story and song as a triumph for the common people, provided its most generous benefits to those who needed them least.

No less than the history of warfare, the history of political exchange tends to get written by the victors. In the official TVA story, the authority's dominion was challenged almost exclusively by wealthy utility magnates like Wendell L. Willkie, the one-time president of Commonwealth & Southern Corporation and the feckless challenger of FDR's third-term election bid. In fact, Willkie made out extremely well, selling parts of his failing utility to the TVA for a cool $44.7 million in 1938. Similar fates awaited the other power companies -- many of them also dismal performers in the marketplace -- that launched legal challenges against the authority.

It was the people without a comfortable spot in the Southern economy-small farmers, hillbillies, marginal figures like O Brother's bumbling cracker heroes-who gave up the most to the TVA and received the least in return. TVA: The First Twenty Years (1956), an official history written by agency staffers, describes the massive dislocations that accompanied the TVA's growth with euphemisms worthy of the Pentagon: "Since the owner knows he has to relocate in most cases, early payment makes him more willing to sell voluntarily."

Over 14,000 families who needed "readjustment" were given the boot from their homes. (In the agency's telling, these displaced souls were filled only with gratitude.) The happy peasants who in Jean Thomas' folksy "TVA Song" come pouring in "from Clinch and Holston/and many a family farm" may not have been outraged when the government kicked them out of their homes. But somebody must have been.

It is Hollywood that has most effectively told the other side of the story. Before the Coen brothers, Elia Kazan's Wild River (1960) detailed the war of nerves between a young TVA official and an elderly woman who refuses to sell her property. Kazan, the earnest social realist and House Un-American Activities Committee songbird, resolved the argument in favor of the benevolent government, but not before the sticky debate between individual rights and presumed collective benefit had been given an extensive hearing.

It's a debate worth reconsidering today. Nobody is suggesting that California's energy crisis would be solved by flooding Bakersfield or Hollister (as tempting as the thought may be). But the situation, like the one that prompted the TVA's creation, has been widely, if inaccurately, described as a failure of the free market.

Not surprisingly, the notion of letting the state government, or even the U.S. government, take control of California's failing power companies is gaining popularity. Before we head down that path, it's worth remembering that while government often promises to restrain the rich, its first instinct is usually to soak the poor.

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