The Tennessee Valley Authority – a federally owned corporation – supplies electric power to nine million people in seven states. TVA covers most of Tennessee, large parts of Alabama, Mississippi, and Kentucky, and small slivers of Georgia, North Carolina, and Virginia.
Only North Carolina and Virginia in that list voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and even in those states he fared poorly in the areas within the Tennessee Valley Authority (southwestern Virginia and western North Carolina). It is fair to say that the region covered by TVA is one of the most conservative areas in the United States. The people of the Tennessee Valley today vote Republican and don’t like “big government.”
But it was “big government” that built the Tennessee Valley Authority. Private enterprise could not have and would not have built it, then or now. The outlay of funds was simply too great for whatever return could be anticipated.
The need for TVA was great. Even by the standards of the Great Depression, the people of the Tennessee Valley were poor, depressed, and seemingly without hope. Average income in the valley was $639, and thousands of families survived – barely – on less than $100 a year. Much of the region’s land had been farmed too long and too intensively, resulting in erosion, soil depletion, and falling crop yields. Flooding, which was common, led to further erosion. Very little good timber was left, and 10 percent of the remaining forests were burned each year. Shockingly, 30 percent of the valley’s population was affected by malaria. Only two percent of the farms had electricity.
To meet the great needs of the people of the Tennessee Valley, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Congress – early in the New Deal – to create “a corporation clothed with the power of government but possessed of the flexibility of private enterprise.” Congress responded, passing the TVA Act on May 18, 1933.
TVA was one of the most innovative ideas of the New Deal, and from the beginning TVA adopted a unique problem-solving approach: integrated resource management, which meant that every issue TVA faced – power production, navigation on the Tennessee River and its tributaries, flood control, malaria prevention, reforestation, or erosion control – was studied in the context of other problems, with actions often solving several problems simultaneously.
Today, TVA operates 30 major dams, and a host of smaller ones. Floods have been tamed, with the side benefit that controlling water levels reduced mosquito-breeding sites. The Centers for Disease Control says that by 1947 malaria was eradicated within the Tennessee Valley. TVA’s conservation programs have restored soil fertility, conserved water resources, provided recreation programs, and helped forests come back. TVA developed fertilizers and taught farmers methods to improve crop yields.
Most importantly, TVA brought electricity to an energy-starved region. Today, the Authority supplies electricity to its customers at a lower cost than most electricity produced elsewhere in the country. TVA in 2009 charged 9.7 cents for one kilowatt-hour – the amount of electricity it takes to burn ten 100-watt light bulbs for one hour. The national average is 11.6 cents.
Best of all, since 1959 TVA has done all this without taking congressional funds. All of its activities – navigation, flood control, environmental research, and land management – are paid for with revenues from the sale of electricity.
Private enterprise could not have built the Tennessee Valley Authority. It took big government with big ideas and the vision of FDR to build the infrastructure that lifted the Tennessee Valley out of poverty and into prosperity.
Unfortunately, the voters of the region apparently have forgotten their history; in recent elections, they have cast ballots for the Republican Party, the party that keeps voting down projects aimed at revitalizing the nation’s infrastructure.
As President Obama said in the State of the Union: “We do big things.” We once did; now, it’s time to do big things again. The nation needs new TVAs or it risks falling behind rising giants like China, India, and Brazil.