There's a stealth issue in this presidential campaign that could go far in determining the election results. I'm talking about the rising gas, phone, electricity, milk and cable prices that are damaging millions of hard-working families struggling to live in George W. Bush's America. In addition to paying $2-plus per gallon prices at the pump, consumers are getting squeezed at the supermarket--shelling out as much as $4 per gallon for milk.
Other staples are going through the roof. Since 1996, cable rates have risen 56 percent, besting inflation by nearly a factor of three. Sen. John McCain recently pointed out that consumers are getting bilked: "When it comes to purchasing cable channels, consumers have all the choice of a Soviet election ballot. One option: Take it or leave it."
According to an exhaustive study by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Enron and other electricity giants manipulated California energy markets to boost wholesale electricity and natural gas prices to make a financial killing. In 2001, electricity prices soared in the western United States, as blackouts became routine and millions of consumers got gouged. Looking ahead and perhaps no farther than next week, phone rates may well rise now that a federal appellate court has scuttled regulations that had saved consumers $11 billion annually on their phone bills. Bush has refused to appeal the phone rate court ruling, a decision that will virtually guarantee higher phone bills for nearly 50 million customers.
This Administration has sided with its corporate cronies on these and other issues. Under Bush many families have had to face tuition hikes, state service cuts and sky-high health care costs. Bush's tax giveaways have boosted the corporate bottom line and helped the wealthiest individuals. Hard-working families have received little to nothing in return.
This White House is addicted to deregulation. It has flung open the doors to its corporate contributors. Cronies like Enron's Ken Lay called the shots in the corridors (and commissions). The FCC's Michael Powell led the fight to raise the media ownership caps, generating momentum for corporate consolidation, stifling diversity and undercutting localism in communities nationwide. Despite valiant efforts by Democratic members of the FCC, the Commission has refused to take action on rising consumer cable rates.
Whether it's mad cow disease or dairy prices, the Administration stands pat while consumers take the hit.
The bitter fruits of deregulation are caught on the recently released Enron traders' tapes. Gloating about how they successfully cheated "poor grandmothers" out of their life savings, these traders show a cynical contempt for people. When one trader gets wind of a transmission line fire that caused a power failure, "Burn baby, burn" is his response.
But, so far, most politicians have failed to become the champion of consumers who are being hit hard in their pocketbooks where it hurts. One Washington communications lawyer told the LA Times: "If you tell this story as part of a larger discussion about the rising price of milk and gas, then suddenly three things make a pattern and you have a campaign issue."
Look at what happened in Florida--not an inconsequential state this November. When state regulators--at industry's urging--proposed a $350 million hike in phone rates, Floridians flooded those regulators with more than 7,000 letters decrying their decision. The regulators responded--they changed the decision.
According to some analysts, the issue of rising phone bills has the potential to sway the presidential race in four closely contested states: Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
In Fort Worth, Texas, the cable manager received numerous complaints that the local provider Charter Communications was forcing large cable packages down people's throats, making consumers pay for channels they never even watched.
John Kerry ought to step up and confront the Baby Bells, cable companies and energy conglomerates. His recent statement against media consolidation suggests Kerry understands this is an issue that resonates with voters across the political spectrum. He could side with consumers who are under siege by an Administration that never met a regulation it didn't want to destroy.
But politicians, including Kerry, are lagging behind and failing to seize the opportunity to protect people's pocketbooks. In the meantime, we may see corporate greed and Administration-sanctioned gouging rousing consumers to take action. To paraphrase that great Paddy Chayevsky film Network, we may be at a moment when the American people are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
For more information:
""Bush Backs off Rule that Eased Phone Line Fees"
Stephen Labaton, New York Times, June 10, 2004
"FERC Finds Widespread Energy Manipulation in 2000 Energy Crisis"
SRIMedia.com, March 27, 2003
"FERC Says Power Firms Maybe Gamed Markets"
Hil Anderson, UPI, Insightmag.com
"Rising Cable Television Rates Become Election Year Issue"
Bobby White, Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Texas Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News, April 12, 2004
"Got Cash? Milk Prices on the Rise"
Donna Balancia, Florida Today, May 9, 2004
"Got More Money? Milk Prices Rising"
Romeo Cantu, KGBT4.com , June 8, 2004
"Could Telephone Rates Become a Campaign Issue?"
Jube Shiver Jr., LA Times, June 1, 2004
"Milk Still Fortifies the Bones, but What about the Wallet?"
June 7, 2004, Lydia Polgreen, New York Times
"Enron's Awesome Cynicism"
New York Times editorial, June 6, 2004
"Kerry Comes out Against Big Media....Sort of"
Timoth Karr, Mediachannel.org, June 9, 2004