Nothing for Something
“The (economy’s) primary functions are agriculture, manufacture, and transportation. Community life is impossible without them. They hold the world together…The great delusion is that one may change the foundation. The foundations of society are the men (sic) and the means to grow things, to make things, and to carry things.”
Henry Ford, My Life and Work, 1922
There’s some limited talk lately about the roots of the current, and unfinished economic unwinding. In official circles, there’s a broad bipartisan agreement that billions and then trillions of dollars must be sluiced to Our Bettors who gambled aggressively with other people’s money. Their wagers ill-placed, those gamers are now trying to squeeze through the casino’s exits, their pockets bulging with money from the paychecks of teachers, letter carriers, health care workers, and the rest of the gamed.
Some have suggested that the present and apparently intractable tanking should offer an opportunity to gaze with fresh eyes on some of the establishment’s most cherished economic/political assumptions. You know them well: 1)Business people are society’s natural leaders. They must be secure in their mansions if the pop-top people are to sleep in mortgaged double-wides. 2) Any government “intervention” on behalf of ordinary people is fiscally ruinous and morally corrosive —- their only responsible “entitlement” should be a ceaseless quest for employment by capital for whatever wage the boss class deems appropriately profit enhancing. 3) Money loaned at interest to people who will use it to consume things they can no longer afford is the primary engine of US economic growth.
I know. When one puts it like that, the conventional wisdom doesn’t sound very appealing or even particularly wise, but the above, is —stripped of artifice — THE official outlook of politicians, media, and institutions that matter.
Of course, there was a time when other economic views were at least tolerated — even giving rise to policy. There was a time when farmers and industrial workers understood their common interests and pursued them. They used terms like The Money Power, and “economic royalists” to describe those who waged continuos class warfare against them. They understood that the people who actually did the real work of civilization deserved to live in dignity. But more importantly, they also knew that this sharing of societal wealth by its producers was vital to the nation’s survival.
Such historical notions are effectively banished from officially sanctioned thought today. You won’t find labor organizers or Farmers’ Union types talking to public school students, though the doors are always open to car salesmen, investment shysters, or smooth-talking military meat merchants. Nor will you discover husbandmen, hod carriers, or upstart hicks on the evening news except when their views support ruling class interests or perhaps when their colorful manner of speaking is found amusing.
When I was very young, the book was already being closed on the so-called “golden age” of American agriculture. After many decades of struggle, and with the weakening of the Bossocracy during the Great Depression, domestic farmers finally gained a fair return for their harvests. New Dealers called it “parity pricing.” Through democratic management of production, and instruments like the farmer/eater-friendly strategic grain reserve (sometimes called the Ever Normal Granary), many millions of farm families had the money to pay for new tractors and equipment forged and assembled by union labor in America’s great industrial centers.
Farmers got their cost-of-production plus a reasonable profit out of a “market” in which they (for once) had collective power. They could afford to not push their land too hard; to maintain their top soil through long rotations, to manage complex diversified operations involving animals and their fertility- building manures, and develop knowledge of what might safely be done on their places over generations of careful stewardship.
As Michael Pollan recently noted in the New York Times Magazine, (“An Open Letter to the Next Farmer in Chief”), the 1940 American farmer’s food system “produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used…” Today, when agribiz rules both landscape and the dinner table, and petroleum power has replaced bankrupted farmers in rural America, “it now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food.”
But as fossil-fuels become less abundant and much more expensive we may discover that in our mad rush to suburbanize America and beggar its farmers, we’ve made a fatal mistake. Pollan notes that currently, “we have only about two million farmers left to feed a population of 300 million.” On many of these huge remaining industrial “farms” the operators have been de-skilled and turned into “drivers and sprayers,” rolling over thousands of acres of monocultured corn or soybeans each year applying petroleum-based fertilizer and poisons to crops anchored in increasingly lifeless and eroding soil.
“Post-oil agriculture will need a lot more people engaged in food production,” Pollan argues. But that diversified rotation and sun-based “golden age” farmer-centric system of 1940 (which produced more calories than it consumed) will require not just neo-peasants but land. And Pollan notes that currently “farmland is being lost to development at the rate of 2,880 acres a day.”
One might imagine that people who like to eat several times a day might be interested in issues like this looming structural problem. Mostly, one would be wrong. The political class mumbles about “economic opportunity” for farmers, which comes down to continued flat-out petro-based production, sold at below cost, and “safety net” subsidy checks. Entrepreneurial rustics are encouraged to turn their places into agri-theme parks, complete with petting zoos and hay rides to hang on a while longer.
It’s bizarre. But in a society which denigrates physical work, worships consumption and waste, and suffers from chronic attention deficit disorder, it’s not surprising.
We’ve made another huge gamble here. Again, we’re likely to lose.
RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org